France urges Azerbaijan to free up road to disputed enclave, Baku unhappy

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna visits Baku

By Nailia Bagirova

BAKU (Reuters) -French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna urged Azerbaijan on Thursday to remove a newly installed checkpoint on the road linking Armenia to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, on the first leg of a delicate trip to both countries.

Her comments in Baku drew a sharp retort from her Azerbaijani counterpart that highlighted the sensitivities of her mission.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought two wars in the past three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians and run by a separatist administration.

Azerbaijan set up a new checkpoint on Sunday on the road to Karabakh, the Lachin corridor, in a move Armenia that called a gross violation of a 2020 ceasefire between the two countries, and which also sparked U.S. concern.

"We deplore the unilateral measures taken by Azerbaijan at the start of the Lachin corridor," Colonna told a news conference with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. "Freedom of movement in the corridor is essential to re-establish trust."

Bayramov responded that Azerbaijan had been saying for 2-1/2 years that Armenia was using the route to transfer weapons and fighters to Karabakh, "but I don't remember France making any statement against Armenia".


The checkpoint marked a sharp escalation in a months-long blockade of Karabakh that began in December, when Azerbaijani civilians identifying themselves as environmental activists shut down the road to traffic.

Ethnic Armenians in Karabakh complain of a humanitarian crisis, while Armenia is increasingly unhappy with the failure of Russian peacekeepers to keep the road open.

Separately, Moscow said deputy foreign minister Mikhail Galuzin had held one-on-one meetings with the Armenian and Azeri ambassadors to discuss the Lachin corridor and Karabakh.

Galuzin underlined the importance of sticking to agreements that Russia had signed with both nations on the normalisation of relations, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Russia said on Wednesday it had appointed a new head of its Karabakh peacekeeping force.

Colonna rejected a reporter's suggestion that France was biased against Azerbaijan, saying its only interest was to secure peace.

She said reopening the Lachin corridor was a point of international law and a question of restoring trust.

"If you want to nourish the peace process, yes we need gestures of a kind that can help rebuild confidence," she said.

(Writing by Mark Trevelyan, Felix Light and David LjunggrenEditing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)