U.S. presses for progress on Karabakh; Azerbaijan denies allegations

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center right, speaks during a meeting with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Aziz oglu Bayramov, left, and Armenia's Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, right, at Blair House, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Washington. Alex Brandon/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday asked the president of Azerbaijan to redouble efforts to clinch a peace agreement with Armenia and called for the immediate reopening of a corridor vital to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

But Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, denied that the Lachin corridor, linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, was subject to a blockade. He said officials in the region had to halt a mining project that Azeri activists say is the main reason for disrupting traffic.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the past 30 years over Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but home to a large Armenian population in the Caucasus mountains.

Tensions have spiraled between the two ex-Soviet neighbors over the blockade of the only road giving direct access to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia.

Blinken's talks with Aliyev on Monday followed the secretary of state's call with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Wednesday focusing on steps to restart talks with Azerbaijan.

Blinken "underscored that the risk of a humanitarian crisis in the Lachin corridor undermined prospects for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan," the State Department said in a statement.

Blinken also raised human rights concerns in Azerbaijan when he spoke to its president, the State Department said.

In a statement, Aliyev said more than 90 patients had been taken from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia through the corridor. Nearly 1,000 vehicles had used the road since mid-December.

"President Aliyev said that this proved that the Lachin road has not been closed by the Azeri side," Russian news agencies quoted the statement as saying.

Last week, Russia also told Azerbaijan that the road leading into Nagorno-Karabakh had to be quickly cleared of protesters.

Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in the dying days of Soviet rule, but Azerbaijan regained much of the lost territory in a six-week conflict in 2020, ended by a Russia-brokered truce and the dispatch of Russian peacekeepers.

Russia and the European Union have led efforts to clinch a durable peace deal - Aliyev and Pashinyan have had a series of direct meetings.

Azerbaijanis who say they are environmental activists have blockaded the road for weeks in protest at the mining project.

Yerevan says they are government-backed agitators. The impasse is being seen as a test of Russia's ability to calm hostilities in its backyard.

Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; additional reporting by Paul Grant and Ron Popeski; Editing by Leslie Adler

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