May 13, 2009 / 11:47 AM / 8 years ago

Turkey seek to ease Azeri worries on Armenia ties

* Links opening border with Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh

* Erdogan, Aliyev to discuss gas deal

By Afet Mehtiyeva

BAKU, May 13 (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan promised Muslim ally Azerbaijan on Wednesday that Ankara will not open its border with Armenia until Armenia ends its prominent role in the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Erdogan was in Baku to ease Azerbaijan’s concerns over reconciliation moves by Turkey and Armenia to end decades of hostility. These have alarmed Azerbaijan which first wants to resolve Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory over which it fought a war with ethnic Armenian separatists in the 1990s.

Turkey has expressed hopes that its moves to improve ties with Armenia, which supports the ethnic Armenian administration in Nagorno-Karabakh, will not harm planned energy projects with Azerbaijan.

These include the planned European Union-backed Nabucco gas pipeline which seeks to cut European dependency on Russian gas.

“There is a cause and effect relation here. Occupation of Karabakh is the cause here and closing of the border is the effect. It is impossible for us to open the border unless that occupation ends,” Erdogan told a joint news conference with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

It was Erdogan’s first visit to the Azeri capital since Ankara and Yerevan announced last month a “roadmap” to normalise ties, which would include reopening a border closed in 1993.

Ankara and Yerevan have been engaged for months in high-level talks since Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish official to visit Armenia last year.

LONG DISPUTE

A thaw between the two neighbours, who trace their dispute to the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One, would shore up stability in the Caucasus. The Turks say large numbers of Muslims were also killed and they deny genocide.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan shares linguistic and cultural ties with Turkey and fears reopening the border would weaken its hand in a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Erdogan urged the so-called Minsk group -- set up in 1992 and co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France -- to speed up efforts to find a solution to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan, who travelled to Baku accompanied by Energy Minister Taner Yildiz and other ministers, said officials from the two countries would discuss changing the price at which Ankara purchases Azeri natural gas.

Turkey buys about 6 billion cubic metres of Caspian natural gas annually after a pipeline from the Azeri Shakh-Deniz field opened in 2007. Some of that gas, which Turkey buys at a discount, is shipped on to Greece. Turkey is seeking an additional 8 billion cubic metres of gas from Azerbaijan.

Partners in the 7.9 billion euro Nabucco project, aimed at cutting Europe’s dependency on Russian gas, want Azeri gas to fill the pipeline when it opens in 2013.

Nabucco will eventually carry about 30 billion cubic metres of gas from the Caspian and Middle East to meet about 5 percent of European demand. (Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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