U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced hope Thursday that Armenia would "defend" itself against Azerbaijan, appearing to show sympathy to one side over the fierce clashes.
"We're hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing," Pompeo said in an interview with WBS radio in Atlanta.
Nagorno-Karabakh has seen heavy fighting over the recent weeks which has claimed the lives of 600 people, including civilians. The region is considered by the U.N. and international law to be part of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has so far liberated more than 30 villages in Nagorno-Karabakh since clashes broke out between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in late September.
The clashes began on Sept. 27 when Armenian forces targeted civilian Azerbaijani settlements and military positions in the region, leading to casualties.
Pompeo voiced hope that the two sides would "get the cease-fire right, and then sit down at the table and try and sort through ... what is a truly historic and complicated problem set."
The United States – which has a strong Armenian diaspora but growing strategic relations with Azerbaijan – has over the past two weeks voiced neutrality over the violence, urging both sides to talk.
Along with France and Russia, the U.S. is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group which was set up in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to find a peaceful solution to the conflict but to no avail. A cease-fire, however, was agreed upon in 1994.
Many world powers, including Russia, France and the U.S., have urged a new cease-fire. Turkey, meanwhile, has supported Baku's right to self-defense and demanded the withdrawal of Armenia's occupying forces.
Following meetings in Moscow on Oct. 10, Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed on a humanitarian cease-fire so that conflicting sides could retrieve bodies left on the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh and hold prisoners' exchange.
However, Armenian forces launched a missile strike the next day on Azerbaijan's second-largest city, Ganja – despite the region being outside the frontline zone – leaving at least 10 people dead and 35 others wounded, including women and children.
Pompeo renewed criticism of NATO ally Turkey, which has staunchly backed Azerbaijan.
"We now have the Turks, who have stepped in and provided resources to Azerbaijan, increasing the risk, increasing the firepower that's taking place in this historic fight over this place called Nagorno-Karabakh," Pompeo said.
Relations between the two former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been tense since 1991 when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh.
Around 20% of Azerbaijan's territory has remained under illegal Armenian occupation for nearly three decades.
Multiple U.N. resolutions, as well as many international organizations, have demanded the withdrawal of the occupying forces.
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