Azerbaijan puts off joint military drills with US

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Officials in Azerbaijan have postponed a military exercise with the United States and expressed displeasure with Washington's mediation of an ethnic separatist dispute in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation.

In an apparent show of unprecedented strain in relations with the U.S., Azerbaijan also made statements welcoming a mediation offer by neighboring Iran.

Azerbaijan is the starting point for pipelines that transport oil and gas to Europe and bypass Russia. The U.S. has been courting the country because of its Caspian Sea oil riches and strategic location between Russia and Iran, but has repeatedly expressed concern over media rights and the treatment of the opposition.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry did not specify a reason why it was putting off the exercise but officials and lawmakers on Tuesday expressed their dismay with U.S. policy on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has been under the control of Armenian and ethnic Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire ended six years of a separatist war.

Washington, France and Russia have led efforts to negotiate a resolution of the dispute since then, with little visible progress.

The U.S. has asked Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, to open its borders with Armenia before the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is fully settled. Turkey, which shares linguistic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in protest of the Nagorno-Karabakh occupation.

Asked about the reason for the postponement of the "Regional Response 2010" exercises, Ali Ahmadov, a deputy leader of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said that Azerbaijan expects its international partners to contribute to settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an implicit criticism of the U.S. stance on the Turkey/Armenia border issue.

Similar exercises in previous years have focused on staff training and field maneuvers focusing on peacekeeping operations.

The U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment.

Last week, an Azerbaijani presidential aide, Ali Hasanov, said the U.S. is biased against the country in its role as a mediator. He claimed that the United States is under pressure from pro-Armenian lobbies and "sometimes loses its neutrality and openly supports Armenia."

Another member of the ruling party, Fazayil Agamali, even proposed Tuesday to drive the U.S. business out of Azerbaijan's energy sector.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry on Monday welcomed Tehran's proposal to host a meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers. Armenia hasn't yet responded to the offer.