Azerbaijan hopes for peace with pope's visit

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Soldiers in dark-green camouflage snapped their bayonets at the Martyrs' Lane cemetery Tuesday, practicing drills for the arrival of Pope John Paul II.

Most of the hundreds of rows of black tombstones are for those killed in fighting during the civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

A cease-fire ended the fighting in 1994, but a stalemate continues, and John Paul's two-day visit to this Muslim country is raising hopes that he could be a voice for peace in the conflict that has left 30,000 dead and more than a million people homeless.

"Of course all the young people still have hope for peace -- you see how many dead we have here," said Ilgar, a worker at the memorial who declined to give his last name.

Recent months have seen growing numbers of opposition protests in Azerbaijan, focused on President Geidar Aliev's rule and his handling of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict ended with 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory becoming a de facto part of Armenia.

Isa Gambar, the head of a leading opposition party, says the papal visit on Wednesday and Thursday will be a positive event for the entire country, but he doubts the pontiff will bring any movement in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"It doesn't pay to have overly large hopes the pope's visit will help normalize the conflict that will in the end be disappointed," he said.

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