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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Backs Peacekeepers for Karabakh

WASHINGTON -- President Bill Clinton said Tuesday he would not object to Russian peacekeeping forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh if the two sides in the conflict -- Armenians and Azerbaijanis -- agree to it.

Clinton spoke at the start of an Oval Office meeting with Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan.

"It depends on what they want," Clinton said, referring to the parties to the dispute, the longest-running of any of the conflicts in the old Soviet Union.

"If the parties agree to it, and there were clear CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) safeguards so that we had the right sort of oversight in the process, and the parties agree to it, then the United States would not object," Clinton said.

Several thousand people have been killed in 6 1/2 years of fighting over Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated territory inside Azerbaijan. The fighting started after the region declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1988 and sought unification with Armenia.

Armenia is not formally involved in the war, which began while both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. But Yerevan provides logistic and diplomatic support to the Karabakh Armenians and allows its volunteers to fight in the rugged territory.

Russia has offered a peace initiative in Nagorno-Karabakh involving a Russian security force to separate the warring sides. Armenia and the Karabakh Armenians have accepted the idea, but Azerbaijan has been loathe to invite the Russian troops in without CSCE oversight.

Some observers wonder whether giving Russia the green light to deploy a peacekeeping force in Azerbaijan, currently the only former Soviet republic without Russian troops, would further Moscow's neo-expansionist ambitions more than the goal of peace in Karabakh.

"It seems that, on this issue as on some others, the Clinton administration has not wanted to put itself at cross-purposes with Russia," The Washington Post said in an editorial reprinted in the International Herald Tribune on Tuesday. "This is all very well, but the effect is to give an opening to the tendency in Russia that favors restoration of the old empire."

Ter-Petrosyan, seated at Clinton's right in his first visit with the U.S. president, played down the question of which countries' troops should be used, telling reporters his government wanted the soonest establishment of peace.

"I think that the most important in this issue is the establishment of peace and not who will do that," Ter-Petrosyan said.

Clinton told reporters the United States would have a "very significant aid package" for Armenia this year, but gave no details.

To date, the U.S. has contributed $335 million in assistance to Armenia, including $305 million in humanitarian assistance and $30 million in technical assistance.

Officials said the per capita level of U.S. assistance to Armenia is the highest of all the Newly Independent States.