WASHINGTON (Combined Sources)–US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday called on the Armenian and Azeri governmen’s to summon up the political will to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Rice said the long-running conflict is holding back both countries.
Rice said the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is adversely affecting the interests of both Armenia and Azerbaijan and could be resolved quickly, with a little bit of political will by the two principals.
Asked about the conflict in an appearance before the American-Turkish Council in Washington, Rice said Minsk Group diplomats have been close to getting an agreement on several occasions, and that it is time for the parties to make the hard choices needed to finally end the conflict:
"It needs to be done. I have made the case to both the Armenian government and the Azeri government that they are falling behind the rest of the region because they will not resolve this conflict between them. And frankly there is plenty of, if you wish to use the word, blame to go around on both sides. This could be done if there is political will, and it ought to. It ought to be done," he said.
In conjunction with Rice’s remarks, the State Department issued a fact sheet Tuesday reiterating that the United States does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country, supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and holds that the future status of the region is to be settled through negotiations.
It reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the Minsk process and said cooperation among the three co-chairs is excellent.
Rice also commended Turkey’s government for seeking to revise a law that limits free speech, but urged it also to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Rice encouraged Turkey to stay true to democratic secular principles.
"We commend Prime Minister (Tayyip) Erdogan for stating recently that parliament will amend Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes insulting Turkishness," she said.
"Expressing one’s belief is not an insult to the state, it is one of the highest forms of citizenship," Rice said.
Turkish government officials acknowledge the law has embarrassed Turkey abroad, but reform has been delayed several times because of opposition from nationalists.
Rice said Turkey should also respect the rights of religious groups such as its Greek Orthodox community by allowing a training college for priests shut down in the 1970s to reopen.
"We continue to encourage Turkey to recognize and protect the civil rights of all religious and ethnic groups, such as by reopening the Ecumenical Patriarch’s Halki seminary as a vocational school," she said.
Rice also said she was following closely a prosecutor’s attempt to ban Turkey’s ruling AK party for alleged Islamist activities.
"We believe and hope this will be decided within Turkey’s secular democratic context and by secular democratic principles," she said.
Turkey has been locked in a political crisis since a chief prosecutor in March asked the Constitutional Court to shut down the AK Party and ban its leaders, including Erdogan, from politics for five years.
Erdogan, whose party has roots in political Islam and was re-elected last year, says he does not expect the party will be closed down, but the case has rattled investors and prompted concern in the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join.
Rice said Washington continued to "strongly" support Turkey’s EU bid.
Meanwhile, Turkish warplanes hit an area in northern Iraq where a group of Kurdish rebels was trying to infiltrate Turkey, the military said Wednesday.
The aircraft attacked the Kurds in the Avasin-Basyan region of northern Iraq, near the Turkish border town of Cukurca, the Turkish military said.
The military said the Kurdish group was "rendered ineffective," a euphemism generally used to refer to killed rebels. But in Wednesday’s statement, it was unclear if there were any casualties.