Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has offered to mediate in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.This content was published on February 23, 2006 - 16:52
The Azerbaijani government responded on Friday by inviting Calmy-Rey to visit a refugee camp for displaced persons from the territory.
The camp near Baku houses 270 people driven out of the mainly ethnic Armenian territory within Azerbaijan.
"It is hard to see people living in such conditions," Calmy-Rey said. "And it is even harder to understand why they have been here for 13 years."
The Swiss foreign minister raised the subject of Nagorno-Karabakh with her opposite number Elmar Mammadyrov on Thursday. She recalled Switzerland's previous mediation efforts to end the long-running conflict and stressed the country's willingness to play a part in the future.
She said Switzerland would also work within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to try to broker a peace agreement.
Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1991 triggering a full-scale conflict. A Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994 left the region under ethnic Armenian control, but no final settlement has ever been signed.
Face-to-face talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in Paris earlier this month ended without agreement.
Calmy-Rey had indicated plans to visit both Azerbaijan and Armenia this year. The fact that she later dropped Armenia from her travel plans has caused irritation among the Armenian community in Switzerland.
The co-president of the Swiss-Armenian society, Sarkis Shahinian, told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper the visit showed that Switzerland's priority was good relations with Azerbaijan.
He said he was "concerned" that Switzerland was endangering its role as a neutral mediator in the conflict.
But foreign ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel said Switzerland didn't want to upset anyone in the southern Caucasus region, made up of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"The visit expresses the growing interest of Switzerland in this region as a whole," the spokesman said.
On Thursday the two sides signed a joint declaration on migration, which Switzerland hopes will result in negotiations on a repatriation agreement.
"The beginning of a partnership on this issue is important for Switzerland," Calmy-Rey said.
The foreign ministry said that three other bilateral agreements were signed with Baku.
"We are talking about an investment protection agreement, a double taxation agreement and a framework agreement for technical, humanitarian and financial cooperation," Knuchel said.
"The latter is to be seen in the context of the humanitarian and development work that Switzerland is doing in the southern Caucasus region and will allow Switzerland to engage more deeply in that area."
swissinfo, Morven McLean
The priorities of Swiss development cooperation in the southern Caucasus are: good governance and the promotion of peace, sustainable management of natural resources and humanitarian programmes.
The Swiss government's financial commitment to the region in 2005 was budgeted at SFr17.7 million.
Switzerland represents Azerbaijan at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
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