Baku (AFP) - Germany's foreign minister Thursday urged an end to the festering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia amid a fresh international drive for peace.
On a two-day trip to the neighbouring arch-enemies, Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Baku that Europe was throwing new energy into resolving the ongoing bloodshed in the Nagorny Karabakh region that has dragged on for more than two decades.
"We in Europe have watched with some concern that there have been more and more incidents of late," he said at a press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, after talks earlier with President Ilham Aliyev.
Nagorny Karabakh, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, broke away from Azerbaijan with the help of Armenia in a war that claimed some 30,000 lives between 1991 and 1994.
In August, more than 20 troops died on the two sides in the deadliest clashes since the 1994 ceasefire.
French President Francois Hollande is to host talks in Paris next week with representatives of the Minsk group of mediators in the conflict appointed by the OSCE in 1992, which France co-chairs with Russia and the United States.
Hollande will hold separate meetings Monday with Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, who could then meet face-to-face.
Steinmeier said Germany hoped the Paris meeting would be used "to soften some of the positions that have hardened in the past".
The tensions between energy-rich Azerbaijan and Moscow-allied Armenia have flared as ex-Soviet republics nervously watch the Kremlin's confrontation with the West over Ukraine, where government forces are battling Russian-backed separatists.
Azerbaijan has threatened to take back the disputed region by force if negotiations do not yield results, although Armenia, says it could crush any offensive.
Russian President Vladimir Putin brought the leaders of the two countries together for talks in August, amid the new spike in clashes, after a failed attempt by Hollande earlier this year.
Steinmeier said later in Yerevan after talks with Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian that he hoped that at the Paris talks "an opening can be created to bring a bit more calm to the region".
However Nalbandian struck a pessimistic note.
"Armenia is ready to continue talks and achieve the resolution of the Karabakh issue, based on the proposals made by co-chairs of the Minsk Group," he said. "But Azerbaijan is not taking constructive steps."
- Rights record in focus -
Steinmeier jetted to the region straight after talks in Berlin with US Secretary John Kerry Wednesday that focused in large part on Ukraine.
Azerbaijan, sitting on highly lucrative gas supplies from the Caspian Sea, has a rapidly growing energy-based economy that is fuelling more swagger in international politics.
The visit also comes as a new meeting to resolve the bitter gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine was set for next week amid fears Moscow could halt crucial energy supplies to Europe this winter.
Steinmeier said that while Europe wanted to expand its energy ties with Azerbaijan, it would not look the other way on its human rights record.
Rights groups say the government has been clamping down on opponents since Aliyev's election for a third term last year.
Mammadyarov said Azerbaijan was often attacked by "sponsored parties" who used "double standards" to "insult" his country.