LONDON – As fighting rages between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with hundreds dead and fears regional powers Turkey and Russia could be pulled in, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo huddled with the foreign ministers of the two countries in a diplomatic bid to halt the fighting.
Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview with Fox News, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said his country is prepared to lay down its arms.
“We are ready to agree to a cease-fire,” he said, adding that such a move is conditioned on Armenia pulling out of what Azerbaijan calls “occupied” borderlands. Two past cease-fires have failed during the nearly four-week deadly battle.
DEATH TOLL SOARS AS ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN CONFLICT ESCALATES: ‘THIS IS A FIGHT AGAINST JIHADISTS’
Baku has come under international criticism for what’s claimed to be civilian casualties in the conflict. Residential buildings and even a landmark church have been hit by Azeri military fire. Azerbaijan says Armenia is doing the same, and the president claimed the damage is not intentional.
“We publicly said we will take revenge, but on the battlefield,” Aliyev said. “We do not kill civilians. We do not target religious sites.”
The concern is that this now-localized war could expand: Turkey backs Azerbaijan, and Russia is a nominal ally of Armenia.
“Our position is that all the regional countries should stay away from direct involvement in the conflict,” Aliyev said. “We are completely against the ‘internationalization’ of the conflict.”
Still, Turkey’s backing of Baku is strong and public. In addition to military gear, it’s alleged by multiple sources that Turkey-allied Syrian militia are fighting alongside Azeri troops. Aliyev flatly denied the charges.
“We don’t need any mercenaries,” he said. “It’s all fake news aimed at damaging the image of the country and diminishing the bravery of the soldiers on the battlefield.”
Some accounts note the pre-election timing of the meetings held in Washington between Pompeo and principals in the fight. Following the meetings, President Trump told reporters optimistically, “We will see what happens.”
Azerbaijan’s president seemed willing to accept assistance, however he gets it.
“Any motivation in order to put an end to hostility is supported by us,” Aliyev said. “A very straightforward position by President Trump is supported by me as well as the people of Azerbaijan.”
In fact, at Friday’s Oval Office press event, Trump praised Armenia and did not mention Azerbaijan. Asked one more time if he thought a peaceful resolution was possible, Aliyev gave a measured reply.
“I am absolutely confident … but it depends on the other side,” he said.