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Pompeo To Meet With Azerbaijan And Armenia's Foreign Ministers Amid Fierce Conflict

NOEL KING, HOST:

This morning the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia will meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo here in Washington for diplomatic talks. They will not, however, meet him together. They refuse to be in the same room. The two former Soviet republics are fighting over a contested region. NPR's Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim has been following this one. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: The place at the center of this conflict is called Nagorno-Karabakh. And this is not a new fight, is it?

KIM: No, not at all. Nagorno-Karabakh is located in the Caucasus Mountains. This is a region that serves as a land bridge between Russia and the Middle East. And it's also a place where Russia, Turkey and Iran have historically vied for influence. Now, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh goes back to the last days of the Soviet Union, when a lot of ethnic groups inside the Soviet Union were demanding independence. Among those were the Armenians living in Azerbaijan in a region called Nagorno-Karabakh.

Those Armenians fought a bloody war of secession and prevailed. And for the last 26 years, that's more or less been the status quo, although there have been scattered flare-ups. Armenians now say they're fighting a war of national survival. Azerbaijanis say they want to retake control of land that is inside their internationally recognized borders. One reason the Azerbaijanis feel empowered now is that they're getting a lot of support from Turkey.

KING: OK. So let's talk about where this stands. We've said these two men won't sit down together. We've called it a conflict. Are Armenia and Azerbaijan openly fighting?

KIM: Well, technically, they are fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. We are now in the fourth week of renewed fighting. But both sides are reporting continued fighting on the frontline. The Azerbaijani side is claiming to be taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh slowly but surely. Russia has tried to broker a couple of cease-fires, but they haven't held. Azerbaijan doesn't publicize the number of its casualties, but the Armenian side reports 900 soldiers killed in action. Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, according to his information, close to 5,000 people have already been killed.

KING: OK. So we have Russia involved. We have the U.S. involved, suggesting that there is something much broader at stake here than just this relatively small region.

KIM: This is a very dangerous conflict because Turkey has become involved on the side of Azerbaijan. And officially, Russia has a defense pact with Armenia. But so far, Putin is still treading very carefully and trying to present himself as a mediator. Where the U.S. comes in is that together with Russia and France, these three countries have been heading a peace process since the 1990s. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have good relations with the United States, and that's why we see their foreign ministers coming to Washington today. But if you talk to Azerbaijanis, they say that more than 20 years of talks haven't yielded a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and they've stopped believing in diplomacy.

KING: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks, Lucian.

KIM: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.