KEY WEST, Fla. — In the Bush administration's first venture into direct mediation of an international dispute, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell conferred Tuesday with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan about the stalemated conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"These Key West talks highlight U.S. engagement in the international effort to bring peace" to the troubled region, Powell told reporters.
In keeping with President Bush's determination that Washington should not impose a settlement on unwilling parties, Powell said the United States was "prepared to support any agreement acceptable to the two presidents."
That drew a sharp rejoinder from Azerbaijani President Heydar A. Aliyev, who called for far more direct intervention. He said it is not enough for the international community to say that "whatever the presidents agree upon will be acceptable."
Aliyev complained about "indecisiveness on the part of the international community" in the face of seven years of deadlocked negotiations after a war that killed 15,000 people and left a million homeless.
Later, Powell said he was not surprised by Aliyev's remarks, adding that the mediators do intend to be more active than they have been over the last several years. But he did not reveal specifics.
The talks in former President Harry S. Truman's vacation White House were the 16th round of face-to-face discussions between Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharyan.
Powell headed to Washington Tuesday evening but said he could return if his presence was needed.
Judging by their public statements before the talks retreated behind closed doors, Kocharyan and Aliyev have a long way to go before they make peace. Aliyev spoke for almost half an hour, recalling all of Azerbaijan's grievances in a conflict that began in 1988 when both countries were still Soviet republics.
In a tart, but brief, response, Kocharyan said: "I have not made these many miles of trip to Florida to try these propaganda campaigns. I have come here to work constructively to seek a settlement."
Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominately Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, declared independence in 1988, touching off a long and bitter war. A 1994 truce left the region under control of ethnic Armenians supported by the Armenian government. The separatists also hold a ring of Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and a corridor connecting the enclave with Armenia proper.
Kocharyan is the former prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh. He was elected president of Armenia in 1998, pledging to keep the enclave in Armenian hands.
Since the 1994 truce, the conflict has claimed a few hundred lives a year as a result of sniper fire and land mines.
Powell stressed the economic dimension of the conflict, urging Armenia and Azerbaijan to put aside their differences and "allow these two countries to progress more quickly into the promise of the 21st century world economy."
After kicking off the conference, Powell turned the U.S. delegation over to Carey Cavanaugh, a diplomat who has been working on the issue for years. In an unusual procedure adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the chairmanship of the mediation group rotates between the United States, Russia and France.
In Stepanakert, the largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh, the leader of the small, self-proclaimed state said he hoped the talks would lead to a settlement allowing the enclave to be unified with Armenia or be recognized as independent.
"All other options mean that we move not toward peace but toward war," said Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Gukasyan.
Gukasyan, interviewed by The Times on Tuesday night at his residence in Stepanakert, said there were several factors conducive to a peaceful settlement now. He said he sensed that the Azerbaijani side "more than ever is inclined to take a realistic view of everything."
While expressing confidence in Kocharyan, Gukasyan said the republic is not a direct party to the talks and therefore might reject whatever the participants decide.
Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Stepanakert contributed to this report.