BAKU (Reuters) - NATO's chief said on Friday he was "deeply concerned" about Azerbaijan's pardon of a soldier who had murdered an Armenian, adding it had not helped efforts to end a territorial dispute between the neighboring nations.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned the Caucasus Mountain countries they should not risk returning to war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
"There is no military solution," he told students during a visit to a diplomatic academy in Azerbaijan's capital Baku.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev angered Armenia and world powers by pardoning Safarov after the army officer was repatriated last week from Hungary, where he had served eight years of a life term.
Safarov had been convicted of murdering an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training session in Budapest in 2004.
But the 35-year-old was treated as a hero upon his return, promoted to major and given an apartment and back pay for his years in jail.
"I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process," said Rasmussen.
After meeting Rasmussen later on Friday, Azeri President Aliyev defended his decision to pardon Safarov, saying it was perfectly legal.
Safarov's repatriation "was carried out in accordance with European conventions, and his release in accordance with Azerbaijan's constitution," he told journalists at a joint briefing with Rasmussen.
He added Azerbaijan wanted to resolve the Nagoro-Karabakh dispute peacefully.
"I DON'T WANT WAR"
Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan said on Friday he also did not want a return to war and suggested the international community should be tougher on Azerbaijan.
"I'm a man, who has seen a war and that's why I don't war another war, he told OSCE diplomats at a meeting in Yerevan.
Ethnic Armenian forces defeated Azeri troops and took control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region in a war that erupted as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
A 1994 ceasefire halted the conflict which killed 30,000 people and forced about a million, mostly Azeris, to flee. Fighting still breaks out intermittently across the ceasefire line and Aliyev has repeatedly said Azerbaijan may one day take the region by force.
Countless meetings between presidents and international mediation led by the United States, Russia and France have brought no deal to end the dispute in the strategic South Caucasus, a route for Westward energy exports from the Caspian Sea area, including Azeri oil and gas.
Hungarian authorities say Azerbaijan had promised to uphold the sentence handed down to Safarov, who entered Lieutenant Gurgen Markaryan's room as he slept and attacked him with a knife and axe, nearly severing his head.
Armenia has suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary, and opponents of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban say the decision to send Safarov home was suspicious at a time when he was trying to establish closer economic ties with energy-rich Azerbaijan.
Orban defended the decision on Friday.
"I must say that we acted not only in good faith but also in accordance with European legal traditions, prescriptions, culture and norms," Orban said on national radio in Hungary.
(Additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Marton Dunai in Budapest; Writing by Steve Gutterman and Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Heavens)