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EU launches association talks with Azerbaijan

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(BAKU) - The European Union on Friday launched talks with Azerbaijan on an association agreement that would boost ties between the bloc and the energy-rich ex-Soviet republic.

"The preparation and signing of an association agreement is another important step in relations between the EU and Azerbaijan. It promotes integration of our country into Europe," Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister Mahmud Mamedguliyev told a news conference in Baku.

The head of the EU's negotiating team, John Kjaer, said that the eventual association agreement would promote democracy and economic prosperity in the bloc's Eastern neighbourhood.

"Europe is strategically interested in stability and democratic development of its eastern neighbours," Kjaer said.

Association agreements are treaties between the bloc and non-EU countries that create a framework for cooperation on political and economic issues. Negotiations on agreements usually take from one to four years.

Azerbaijan has not sought as close links with the EU as neighbouring Georgia, which launched similar talks with the bloc on Thursday, but is an important partner for Europe in terms of energy cooperation.

Azerbaijan is a key partner in Western-backed projects to deliver oil and gas from the Caspian Sea through Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia. It is also considered a crucial potential supplier for the EU's flagship Nabucco gas pipeline project.

Association agreement negotiations are also taking place with Ukraine and Moldova and are due to be launched on Monday with another South Caucasus republic, Armenia.

Six ex-Soviet states -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- are also part of EU's Eastern Partnership initiative designed to foster democracy, security and economic reforms in Europe's eastern neighbourhood and deepen political and economic ties.

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