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Azerbaijan's president calls on Armenia to return land for peace

Exclusive: Aliyev says cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh has 'failed'

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Armenians "must make a strong commitment that they will liberate" the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh in an interview with Nikkei. (Photo courtesy of the presidency)

BAKU -- A cease-fire between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the contested Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh has failed and Armenia should promise to return occupied territory so peace negotiations can begin, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said Wednesday.

"Attempts to achieve a ceasefire failed because two minutes after the ceasefire had started, they violated and attacked our peaceful cities," Aliyev told Nikkei in an exclusive interview. "They violated the cease-fire and a ceasefire cannot be achieved unilaterally."

Two cease-fires brokered by Russia have so far failed to stop the latest fighting as both sides accused each other of breaching the agreement.

The monthlong clashes in and around the ethnic Armenian enclave have already killed more than 930 people. Azerbaijan's army has been advancing on several fronts since clashes broke out at the end of September.

"The more time passes on the battlefield, the more territories we liberate," Aliyev said, claiming Azerbaijan has the upper hand. Armenia, therefore, "must be more reasonable," he said.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev spoke in an interview with Nikkei in Baku on Oct. 21.

Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding districts are internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, but have been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war between the two countries ended in 1994. The area accounts for about 20% of Azerbaijan's territory. The breakaway region declared independence, which is not internationally recognized, including by Armenia.

Aliyev insisted that Armenia must express its intention to return Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas in exchange for peace. The Armenia leadership must "make a strong commitment" not to violate the ceasefire and "make a commitment about the liberation of occupied territories," he said. "Of course, we can talk about the timing."

On Wednesday, Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers went to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Both ministers are scheduled to visit the U.S. on Friday to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Asked about the talks, Aliyev said: "Our main objective in the discussion will be to find out whether the Armenian leadership is ready to liberate our territories or not, and if ready, then when?"

However, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan voiced pessimism on Wednesday. "We have to realize that the Karabakh question, at least at this stage and for a very long time, cannot have a diplomatic solution," he said in a video message posted on Facebook.

Pompeo called the conflict a complicated diplomatic situation when asked about Friday's ministers meeting at a news conference in Washington.

"The right path forward is to cease the conflict, tell them to de-escalate, that every country should stay out, provide no fuel for this conflict, no weapons systems, no support, and it is at that point that a diplomatic solution that would be acceptable to all can potentially be achieved," he said. "That's what I'll talk to them about on Friday and I'm anxious to hear from them what they're seeing on the ground and how we might get closer to what it is we think is not only in the United States' best interest, but in each of their countries' best interest as well."

The latest fighting comes as Azerbaijan has ramped up its oil and gas exports through multiple pipelines over the past two decades, simultaneously boosting its military muscle with the padded coffers.

It has being buying sophisticated weaponry from Turkey, Israel and Russia including armed drones and missile defense systems.

Aliyev said the country's pipelines are secure. "Our pipelines in our territory are duly protected," he said, warning Armenia that any attack to critical infrastructure will be "severely punished"

Aliyev said the Trans Adriatic Pipeline -- the first direct natural gas pipeline to carry Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe -- will be opened "within weeks, not months."

Regarding the role of Azerbaijan's close ally Turkey, Aliyev said the country "plays an important role not only in our region, in the Caucasus, but also in the broader region and in the world. It is a reality."

"Turkey is actively involved and we support it," he said.

International media reported that mercenaries from Syria have been fighting in the conflict, but Aliyev flatly denied that as "not true." But he added: "We cannot exclude Azerbaijani-origin people from other countries. But it's not the way how it's presented like 'Azerbaijan is inviting terrorists in order to fight.' This is false information."

Read the full transcript of the interview here.

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