US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is holding talks with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia on Friday, in separate meetings, in a fresh attempt to end nearly a month of bloodshed in the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh.
A handful of protesters from both sides, holding Armenian and Azeri flags and banners, chanted outside the State Department as the meetings were taking place.
Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov met with Pompeo for about 40 minutes. Moments after he left, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan arrived for his meeting.
But hopes for a breakthrough were low.
Two Russia-brokered ceasefires have collapsed since fighting broke out on September 27 over the territory, which is within Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Hours before talks were due to start in Washington, DC, Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces clashed again in the fight over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
In the latest battles, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence reported fighting in several areas, including territories close to the line of contact that divides the sides.
Armenia’s Ministry of Defence also reported fighting in several areas and said the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh was shelled overnight.
“I very much hope that our American partners will act in unison with us and will help the settlement,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, adding that he speaks to leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan several times a day by phone.
Dozens of civilians on both sides have died along with more than 700 Armenia-backed soldiers. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military death toll.
However, it is widely understood that the death tolls are higher than what has been reported.
Putin estimated on Thursday that almost 5,000 people have been killed in the fighting so far.
“There are many losses on both sides,” he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron held a previously unannounced meeting with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian in Paris on Thursday.
World leaders have repeatedly said only a diplomatic solution to the crisis would be acceptable.
Pompeo said he hoped a diplomatic solution and the “right path forward” could be found as the United States, France and Russia press on with the mediation efforts they have led for decades.
The latest clashes in the decades-old conflict have raised fears of an all-out war breaking out, that could draw in Russia and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan’s allies respectively.
Shortly before the Washington talks were due to start, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that he hoped Moscow and Ankara could work together on resolving the conflict.
Reiterating demands for a Turkish role in mediation which has long been led by the United States, Russia and France, he said: “Turkey believes it has just as much right as Russia to be involved here for peace.”
But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said this week he sees no diplomatic resolution of the long-running conflict at this stage.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said the prospects of reaching a peace settlement are “very remote”, and demanded promises that Azerbaijan will be handed back control of Nagorno-Karabakh, recognised by the UN as Azeri territory.
Armenians regard Nagorno-Karabakh as part of their historic homeland and accuse Azerbaijan of making a land grab in the recent fighting.