Warring sides in face-to-face talks over Karabakh

Yerevan (AFP) –

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The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan on Friday sat down for talks in Geneva as mediators pressed ahead with a new effort to negotiate a ceasefire over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov "began a meeting" in Geneva, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry in Yerevan told AFP.

Speaking to reporters late Thursday, the spokeswoman, Anna Naghdalyan, said securing a ceasefire and the introduction of verification mechanisms were a priority.

Earlier in the day Yerevan said Mnatsakanyan had met with the Minsk Group mediation co-chairs in Geneva.

Azerbaijan for its part said in a terse statement earlier Friday that its Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov was in Geneva on a working visit.

A new round of diplomatic talks was initially set to take place in Geneva Thursday but they were postponed amid a new spike in fighting.

Former peace mediator Carey Cavanaugh stressed the importance of the Geneva talks in trying to secure an end to bloodshed.

"Every day of delay in achieving a functional ceasefire increases the likelihood of a dramatic escalation of civilian losses in this tragedy," tweeted Cavanaugh, a former US ambassador and co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a bitter conflict over Karabakh since Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of the mountainous province in a 1990s war that left 30,000 people dead.

The current clashes broke out on September 27 and fighting has persisted despite repeated international attempts to secure a ceasefire.

Fighting has intensified in recent days, including with renewed shelling and rocket attacks on civilian areas.

Earlier this week Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he was not against the new round of talks in Geneva but appeared to downplay their significance.

"There have been a lot of meaningless meetings over the past 28 years," he said.

More than 1,200 people from both sides have been reported dead since the fighting began, and thousands forced from their homes.

Azerbaijan has not released military casualty figures and the death toll is believed to be higher, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying last week close to 5,000 people had been killed.