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Politics Two Conservative MPs banned from Azerbaijan for visiting occupied territories

Tony Clement fields questions in the foyer outside the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, May 11, 2015. Conservative public safety critic Clement is asking for an apology from the CBC after he hung up the phone during a live radio interview about refugees.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Conservatives MPs Tony Clement and Rachael Harder have been banned from the Central Asian nation of Azerbaijan for visiting disputed territories occupied by Armenia that have been the scene of sporadic and bloody clashes over the past 16 months.

Azerbaijan's foreign ministry has accused the MPs of falling for the "propaganda of the Armenian side" and ignoring four resolutions of the United Nations Security Council calling for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that was seized in a war in the early 1990s.

The Conservative MPs are visiting the region on a trip paid for by One Free World International, a Toronto non-profit group headed by a Muslim-turned-Christian that advocates for persecuted minorities. They are accompanied by Armenian National Committee of Canada executive director Sevag Belian, who helped set up meetings with top government officials.

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Azerbaijan has lodged a protest with the Canadian government about the MPs' trip and placed them on its list of undesirable persons.

"One million Azerbaijanis have been subject to ethnic cleansing. Imagine Canadian MPs visiting these territories and, in a way, giving their support to this ethnic cleansing," Azerbaijani foreign ministry chief spokesperson Hikmat Hajiyev told The Globe and Mail. "That is completely immoral and against the values of the Canadian government and Canadian society. It is completely unacceptable."

In a telephone interview from Armenia's capital of Yerevan on Friday, Mr. Clement said he was taking part in a documentary that is being produced by One Free World.

"I am not here endorsing anyone. I want both sides to have a negotiated settlement of the situation but I am here on a fact-finding and humanitarian mission along with Rachael Harder," Mr. Clement said.

However, he conceded that he accepts Armenia's claims that Azerbaijani forces have committed atrocities, citing beheadings and cutting off of the ears of Armenian soldiers.

"What I saw with my own eyes is very disturbing in terms of the atrocities that were committed by Azerbaijani forces. In terms of the political situation, I am sure I echo Global Affairs Canada when I say it is better to have a negotiated solution than a continuing war," Mr. Clement said.

A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did not directly criticize the two MPs, but made clear that the Canadian government does not wish to take sides in the territorial dispute.

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"It should be noted that Canada recommends against all travel to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. We fully support the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's] efforts to forge a peaceful and comprehensive settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the region," press secretary Adam Austen said. "A military solution is not the answer. This is a position we have communicated to the governments of both Armenia and Azerbaijan."

Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan and it is internationally recognized as being part of that country, but a large part of it is governed by Armenian separatists who seized control of the mountainous region from ethnic Azeris in the 1990s.

Despite a ceasefire signed by the two foes in 1994, the two have never signed a peace treaty. There have been repeated flare-ups between the two countries, as recently as Friday.

The United States, Russia and France, which co-chair the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Minsk Group for conflict mediation, have been working to secure a binding peace resolution.

The OSCE Minsk Group is seeking the removal of snipers along both sides of the conflict and international peace observers to monitor ceasefire violations.

The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. In 1992, Armenian armed forces occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.

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Armenia has not yet implemented UN Security Council resolutions on withdrawal of its armed forces from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. As many as 3,000 people, mostly soldiers, have been killed in the conflict since 2009.

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