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SLUG: 2-312849 Russia/Azerbaidjan (L)









INTRO: The new president of Azerbaijan says his three-day visit to Moscow has allowed him to strengthen ties and reach trade agreements with Russia. Ilkham Aliyev met with President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials during his stay. Bill Gasperini has more from Moscow.

TEXT: The 41-year-old Azerbaijani leader, who succeeded his father in October, says his meeting with Russian officials should substantially boost trade between the two countries in the coming year.

Mr. Aliveyv says agreement was also reached on the often contentious issue of how to divide up resources in the Caspian Sea region.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan has long been at odds with Russia and other neighbors over oil exploration rights, as well as fishing for endangered sturgeon, which provides world-famous caviar.

During his three-day visit, Mr. Aliyev sought to reassure Russia about Azerbaijan's intentions concerning a new, U-S-backed pipeline due to transport crude oil to Western markets through neighboring Georgia and Turkey. The pipeline is scheduled to open early next year.

Moscow has been against the pipeline because it will bypass Russia, and will substantially increase the stakes of foreign oil companies in the Caspian region.

At a news conference Saturday, Mr. Aliyev said that Russia might also make use of the pipeline to transport its own oil.

The Azeri leader also pointed out that his country currently makes extensive use of a Russian pipeline that carries oil to the Russian port of Novorossisk on the Black Sea.

The pipeline issue is one of many that have strained ties between Azerbaijan and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Both presidents say they want to turn a new page in relations after the death in December of Mr. Aliyev's father, Heidar.

/// REST OPT /// Mr. Putin offered to help on one issue, which has top priority in Azerbaijan: the longstanding conflict with Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Populated by ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijan lost control over the enclave and surrounding territory after a six-year war that ended in a cease-fire a decade ago.

Mr. Putin has offered to play a mediating role in negotiating a final settlement of the issue with the president of Armenia.

Friday's Kremlin meeting was overshadowed by the deadly bomb blast in Moscow's subway that killed at least 39 people and wounded more than 100 others.

Mr. Aliyev quickly offered his condolences to Mr. Putin over the blast. (SIGNED)


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