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HUNTSVILLE, Ontario, June 26 (Reuters) - The United States, France and Russia on Saturday pledged to support Armenia and Azerbaijan as they try to agree basic principles for settling a dispute over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
U.S. President Barack Obama, joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, said both sides had made a significant step in accepting the overall framework of a deal and now needed to work on details.
"Now the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan need to take the next step and complete the work on the basic principles to enable the drafting of a peace agreement to begin," the three leaders said in a joint statement issued during a Group of Eight meeting in Canada.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit both Armenia and Azerbaijan early next month during a trip to the South Caucasus.
The dispute between mostly Muslim Azerbaijan and mostly Christian Armenia remains a threat to stability in the South Caucasus, an important route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian region to Europe.
Skirmishes, sometimes fatal, erupt frequently along front lines near Nagorno-Karabakh, a small mountainous region under the control of ethnic Armenians who fought a six-year separatist war with support from neighboring Armenia.
An estimated 30,000 people were killed and one million displaced before a cease-fire in 1994 but a peace accord has never been agreed and the ethnic Armenian leadership’s independence claim has not been recognized by any country.
The three powers’ joint statement on Saturday said the so-called "Helsinki principles" now recognized by both sides relate to the return of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh guaranteeing security and self-governance and a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
The framework also calls for the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined by a legally-binding vote and the right of all internally-displaced persons and refugees to return.
More than a decade of mediation led by Russia, France and the United States has failed to produce a final peace deal and Azerbaijan has said it may use force to try to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Tension has increased since Armenia and its traditional foe Turkey, which has close ties to Azerbaijan, reached a rapprochement last year.
The accord crumbled this year when Armenia suspended ratification after Turkish demands that it first reach terms over Nagorno-Karabakh, a condition set by Turkey to appease Azerbaijan, an oil and gas producer. (reporting by Alister Bull, writing by Andrew Quinn; editing by David Storey)