The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, whose peoples are locked in a bitter, increasingly destructive struggle over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, jointly called on Thursday for an immediate cease-fire.
The agreement, the unexpected product of talks in Moscow chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, came exactly four years after Nagorno-Karabakh lawmakers sparked the conflict by requesting a reversal of the 1921 Kremlin ruling that attached their agricultural homeland, largely peopled by Armenians, to Azerbaijan, and not Armenia.
Thursday's joint statement was largely one of good intentions, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis cautioned. But even the ability to agree on vague terms of intent represented a remarkable change for the better.
"All participants of today's meeting were unanimous that, when there is war, when the guns are roaring, negotiations cannot succeed," Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Husein-Aga Sadykhov told reporters after the eight hours of talks, held in the Russian Foreign Ministry guest house.
In their statement, the ministers called for an end to the blockading of supply lines and communications by the warring factions, especially to allow delivery of humanitarian aid.
Raffi Hovannisian, the Fresno-born Armenian foreign minister, called the document he signed with Sadykhov "a small step"--but an important one--to resolving what has been one of the longest-running, deadliest ethnic feuds in the now-defunct Soviet Union.
Hovannisian noted that the agreement had not yet been approved by authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh itself; the refusal to accept it there would make moot the joint Armenian-Azerbaijani call for a cease-fire. The agreement was also to be referred back to the Armenian and Azerbaijani parliaments and presidents for binding action.
In a clause that the Armenians said was crucial, but whose exact meaning was already being debated Thursday night, Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to back the Russian Foreign Ministry's proposal to create a "three-sided working group" to help prepare for a future "negotiating process" and determine who takes part.
Mikit Kazaryan, spokesman at the Armenian mission in Moscow, said that the discussion format would allow participation by representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, which formally proclaimed its independence last month. "Armenia has no moral right to make decisions about Karabakh," Kazaryan said.
Last September, Armenia renounced any territorial claims on the territory, awarding a key concession to Azerbaijan.
But Fuad Gadzhiev, an Azerbaijani representative based in Moscow, said: "Azerbaijan is ready to negotiate with Armenian citizens of Azerbaijan but not with Nagorno-Karabakh itself. To deal with it as an entity would be to admit the territorial divisibility of Azerbaijan, and no state in the world could accept that."
The "third side" mentioned in the joint statement, Gadzhiev said firmly, is Russia.
Finding a peaceful solution to what people here call "the Karabakh question" bedeviled former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev; until now, it has eluded Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, as well. Alarmed at the escalating violence near their southern border, the Russians recently decided to try again.
After the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks broke up on Thursday, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who flew to Moscow earlier in the day, met with Yeltsin at the Kremlin.
Air Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the commander of the strategic forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, has said urgent measures must be taken to halt the bloodshed and to prevent units of the former Soviet military in the region from being sucked into the fighting. Addressing Russian legislators on Thursday, Shaposhnikov proposed forming a multinational Commonwealth contingent, modeled on U.N. peacekeeping forces, to keep order in areas like Nagorno-Karabakh now torn by "acute ethnic conflicts."
Speaking in a telephone interview, the Armenian foreign minister said his country would welcome such an "international mechanism" to guarantee the security of Nagorno-Karabakh's people. Azerbaijan has rejected the idea of stationing a U.N. force in the region, but this week said the European Community could act as a broker in the conflict.
Since February, 1988, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the ethnic strife unleashed by the territorial dispute, including Armenians massacred in the Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait and Baku.
According to Armenian authorities, the destruction took a quantum leap on Wednesday, when Azerbaijani forces bombarding Stepanakert, the enclave's capital, used a multiple-rocket launcher to blast the Parliament, hospital and other public buildings. Hovannisian said that, according to the information reaching Armenia, 17 people had been killed, at least 20 wounded and the buildings "largely destroyed."
Telephone communications with Stepanakert have been cut by the Azerbaijani blockade, and independent confirmation of the reports was not possible.