Source AP ©

Former security chief wins presidential vote in Nagorno-Karabakh

The former security chief of Nagorno-Karabakh has won elections for the presidency of the Armenian-controlled breakaway region, the election committee said Friday.

Bako Saakian took 85 percent of Thursday's vote, election committee head Sergei Nasibian said.

Saakian, 47, had headed Nagorno-Karabakh's security service since 2001 but resigned in June to stand in the election. He ran as an independent and will replace Arkady Gukasian, who served two five-year terms.

Saakian pledged to push for full independence of the mountainous territory inside Azerbaijan, whose claim to autonomy is not recognized by any country. His main rival, Masis Mailian, got some 12 percent of the vote, and the remainder was split among three other candidates.

Three-quarters of the territory's 92,000 registered voters cast ballots.

It was the fourth presidential election in the impoverished territory that has been controlled by Armenian and ethnic Armenian forces since a shaky 1994 cease-fire ended one of the bloodiest conflicts that followed the Soviet collapse.

The six-year war killed 30,000 people and drove more than 1 million from their homes, including many of the region's ethnic Azeris. Today, it remains one of the region's "frozen" conflicts in the former Soviet states.

Azerbaijan has rejected the vote as illegitimate and maintained that Armenian separatists came to power in the former autonomous region as a result of ethnic cleansing.

Azerbaijan and Armenia remain locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh despite more than a decade of coaxing from international mediators led by the United States, Russia and France to resolve the region's status.

Armenian Presdent Robert Kocharian congratulated Saakian in a message that said the election "bears witness to an irreversible historical reality - the existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic."

The mostly agricultural region of 146,000 people tied to Armenia by swaths of Azerbaijani territory also under ethnic Armenian control has faced a steady brain drain and dire economic problems despite financial aid from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

Saakian has said that international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state would pave the way for acceptance of Nagorno-Karabakh's sovereignty.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a Russian-Turkish term that means "mountainous black garden." Ethnic Armenians, who now account for virtually the entire population of the territory, prefer to call it Artsakh.

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