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. Azerbaijan rules out help for US military action against Iran
WASHINGTON, April 26 (AFP) Apr 26, 2006
Visiting Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday ruled out his country taking part in any possible military operations against neighboring Iran and said resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia was a top priority for his government.

"Azerbajian will not be engaged in any kind of potential operation against Iran and our officials in the past, including myself, have made (this) very clear," Aliyev told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Therefore I think it is time to stop speculating on this issue."

Aliyev, whose official visit here is his first since his election to succeed his father in October 2003, said his country has a bilateral agreement with Tehran that clearly forbids either country from staging aggression against the other from their respective territories.

His comments came ahead of a meeting with US President George W. Bush on Friday during which the nuclear stand-off with Iran is expected to be raised.

There has been speculation that Azerbaijan, which is strategically located between Iran and Russia and which has troops alongside US forces in Iraq as well as Afghanistan and Kosovo, could be asked by Washington to back any potential military action against Iran should diplomacy on the nuclear issue fail.

Aliyev, whose White House meeting with Bush has long been sought by his government as a way to boost his stature, said he planned to discuss a wide range of topics with US officials, including bilateral relations, energy and security issues as well as the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

He said he hoped Washington would help revive the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a disputed part of Azerbaijani territory that has been controlled since the early 1990s by its majority ethnic-Armenian population.

Aliyev made clear that his country would not relinquish the territory and said any settlement would have to guarantee the return of Azerbaijani refugees to the region while protecting the rights of the local ethnic Armenian population.

"I think it's time for the Armenian leadership to behave like statesemen, to think what will happen in five or 10 years if the conflict is not resolved," he said. "The patience of the Azerbaijani people has a limit.

"We are demanding Armenia return peacefully the land that belongs to us."

The 44-year-old leader also brushed aside criticism concerning his autocratic rule and flawed parliamentary elections in November saying that he saw no chance of any "colour" revolution in Azerbaijan.

"For that to happen, people have to be unhappy with the government," he said, pointing to the country's economic prosperity.

US officials, who have been criticised for inviting Aliyev to Washington in light of the administration's much-touted democracy agenda, said democratic reforms would top the agenda during the visit.

"We have said, and we mean it, that to elevate our relationship with Azerbaijan to a qualitatively new level (...) there needs to be sustained progress on democracy," Matthew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said.

The US administration is keenly interested in energy-rich Azerbaijan as a way to offset dependence on Russia by European markets. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which is expected to become operational soon, is designed to avoid shipping oil through congested Turkish straits while also bypassing Russia's pipeline network.

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