Turkmens Strike Deal With Azeris

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan settled an old gas debt dispute on Wednesday, removing a major obstacle to relations between the two energy-rich Caspian nations.

Europe, seeking alternative energy supply routes to ease its reliance on Russian gas flows, wants Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to cooperate more on the planned Nabucco pipeline, designed to give Europe direct access to Caspian gas.

As part of the deal, Azerbaijan agreed to pay Turkmenistan a $44.8 million debt for gas supplies delivered in the early 1990s, an Azeri government official said.

A Turkmen delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Hidyr Saparliyev was in Baku on Wednesday to sign the deal, the official said.

Relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan turned sour in the 1990s because of ownership disputes over several offshore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea as well as Azerbaijan's debts for Turkmen gas supplies.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has vowed to end his country's reclusiveness and improve relations with neighboring countries.

Steven Mann, the Eurasian energy diplomacy coordinator at the U.S. State Department, was in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, promoting the long-delayed Nabucco pipeline last week.

"We believe it is highly desirable for Turkmenistan to have alternative export possibilities, and Nabucco might be one of those," Mann said Friday.