BAKU NATO's chief accused Azerbaijan of undermining peace efforts with its neighbor Armenia by pardoning a soldier who had murdered an Armenian and warned the countries on Friday they must not return to war.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "deeply concerned" about Azerbaijan's decision to clear Ramil Safarov and its impact on the Caucasus Mountain countries' still simmering dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
"There must be no return to conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan," Rasmussen told students during a visit to a diplomatic academy in Azerbaijan's capital Baku. "There is no military solution" to the dispute, he added.
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 NATO-sponsored language training 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, who was due to meet Aliyev later on Friday.
Ethnic Armenian forces defeated Azeri troops and took control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan's control in a war that erupted as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
A 1994 ceasefire halted the conflict which killed 30,000 people and forces about a million, overwhelmingly Azeris, to flee. Fighting still breaks out intermittently across the cease-fire 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 free Safarov is suspicious at a time when he was trying to establish closer economic ties with energy-rich Azerbaijan.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Heavens)