Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed Monday to resume negotiations next month on a settlement to their dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region following last month's outbreak of violence, the worst in 26 years.
Following talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev "agreed on a next round of talks, to be held in June at a place to be mutually agreed, with an aim to resuming negotiations on a comprehensive settlement."
"The presidents reiterated their commitment to the cease-fire and the peaceful settlement of the conflict," they said in a statement. "To reduce the risk of further violence, they agreed to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism." The OSCE is the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The statement said the presidents also "agreed to continue the exchange of data on missing persons."
Among the measures accepted were an increase in monitors along the cease-fire line and the possible placement of cameras by the U.S., Russia and France, co-chairs of the so-called "Minsk Group," to observe and document violations. That group, operating under the auspices of the OSCE, is seeking to mediate an end to the conflict.
Sargsyan and Aliev both say they support a negotiated settlement to the dispute. They last met in December, but hostilities broke out in April. About 75 soldiers from both sides were killed, along with several civilians, before a Russian-brokered cease-fire stopped the worst of the fighting.
Yet fears loom of a possible escalation, with Turkey strongly backing Azerbaijan and Russia obliged to protect Armenia by a mutual security pact. Earlier this month, Armenia's government gave the go-ahead to legislation that calls for recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The government has blocked earlier, similar proposals from the opposition but this time agreed to send it to parliament in what is seen as a warning to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has condemned the initiative, saying it is aimed at scuttling peace talks.
U.S. officials say they are concerned the recent violence may be the result of each side testing the other's defenses, something made more troubling by the introduction of heavy weapons in recent years. In previous skirmishes, casualties were mainly caused by sniper fire, but in the past year, both sides have introduced mortars, rocket launchers and artillery to the region, the officials said.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in Azerbaijan with about 150,000 residents in an area of 12,000 square kilometers (4,400 square miles), has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since 1994. The conflict is fueled by long-simmering tensions between Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azeris and has been an economic blow to Armenia because Turkey has closed its border with Armenia, leaving the country with open borders only with Georgia and Iran.