The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan told President Bush on Monday that they have made substantial progress in talks aimed at ending 13 years of ethnic conflict over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, senior U.S. officials said.
"We were surprised at how far they came," one official said in reference to negotiations last week in Key West, Fla., between Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and Azerbaijani President Heydar A. Aliyev.
The official said Bush encouraged Kocharyan and Aliyev during separate meetings in the Oval Office to "keep at the process." The rivals agreed to resume their talks in Geneva in June.
Two administration officials briefed reporters at the White House on condition that they not be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the talks.
The optimistic assessment by the U.S. mediators was echoed by spokesmen for both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
U.S. officials said Kocharyan and Aliyev agreed to keep confidential the details of their talks, which are aimed at settling a conflict that began in 1988 when both countries were Soviet republics.
After six years of fighting, the combatants declared a cease-fire. However, the truce is an uneasy one, with several hundred casualties a year from land mines and sniper fire.
Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave in Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population. In 1988, Armenian separatists declared independence. Backed by the Armenian government, the separatists gained control of the mountainous territory and an adjacent belt of land between it and Armenia proper.
Although the Key West talks marked the 16th time that Kocharyan and Aliyev have met, there was a substantial change in format in last week's negotiations. Previously, the two presidents held brief sessions, usually lasting only a few hours. The Key West talks ran from Tuesday morning to late Friday.
U.S. officials said a similarly long meeting was expected in Geneva.
In Key West, Kocharyan, Aliyev and their delegations spent most of their time in separate meetings with U.S., Russian and French mediators instead of in direct negotiations. U.S. officials said both sides agreed that the "proximity talks" resulted in more progress than previous sessions.
"Both presidents came into these discussions with an understanding that the only way they can achieve peace is through serious compromise," a U.S. official said.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan talks marked the Bush administration's deepest venture into direct mediation of an intractable international dispute. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell kicked off the talks last Tuesday.