YEREVAN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a trip to the South Caucasus region on Monday calling on arch rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan to renounce violence that she warned could slip into a broader regional conflict.
Post-Soviet nations Armenia and Azerbaijan traded accusations on Monday ahead of Clinton's arrival over violence that killed three Armenian soldiers and wounded soldiers on both sides of their shared border.
"I am very concerned by these incidents and have called on all parties, all actors, to refrain from the use or threat of force," said Clinton speaking to journalists. "There is a danger that it could escalate into a much broader conflict that would be very tragic for everyone concerned."
War between ethnic Azeris and Armenians erupted in 1991 over the mostly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region which broke away from Muslim Azerbaijan with the backing of Christian Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago.
Sporadic violence still flares along a ceasefire line negotiated in 1994. Some 30,000 people were killed and about 1 million became refugees, the majority in Azerbaijan.
Clinton's South Caucasus trip will focus largely on U.S. interests and security in the region criss-crossed by energy pipelines, fraught with territorial disputes and the site of a five-day war between Russia and pro-western Georgia in 2008.
Clinton was scheduled to meet Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian during a less than five-hour visit before traveling on to Georgia and then Azerbaijan, a major oil and gas producer.
The Secretary of State also urged Armenia and Turkey, whose border has been closed since 1993 to work towards a normalization of relations.
"We are committed to seeing ... Armenia and Turkey normalize relations because we think this is a path forward to a better future for the citizens of both countries," she said.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in an act of solidarity with ethnic kin in Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabkah conflict.
Lack of a permanent settlement to the frozen conflict, despite mediation led by France, Russia and the United States, scuttled Ankara's and Yerevan's efforts to normalize relations.
While Armenia and Turkey signed an agreement in October 2009 to normalize relations, open the border and take steps to develop trade, tourism and economic cooperation, the two sides never ratified the pact.
Clinton also urged Armenia, whose closed borders make it largely dependent on Iran and its former Soviet master Moscow to pursue reforms to improve its economy as well as to strengthen democratic institutions.
"Private sector investors are looking for an open business climate with predictable rules and independent judiciary, transparent regulations, taxes and customs," she said, adding that the United States was pleased at progress Armenia had made.
From Yerevan, Clinton flies to Georgia's Black Sea resort of Batumi where she will spend two nights before traveling to Azerbaijan, where her visit has been carefully calibrated to spend roughly the same amount of time as she did in Armenia.
Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze, Writing by Thomas Grove, Editing by Michael Roddy