Azerbaijan Bans Hundreds over Visits to Disputed Territory

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Azerbaijan on Friday banned 335 foreign nationals-- including European lawmakers, journalists and academics-- from entering the country over visits they allegedly made to the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh.

The Azerbaijani foreign ministry released a list -- including several deputies from France's National Assembly, a member of the British House of Lords and a Spanish opera singer -- of people declared personae non grata in the oil-rich former Soviet state.

All those on the list had "broken the law on Azerbaijan's state borders and disrespected the national sovereignty and territorial unity of Azerbaijan," the ministry said in a statement.

Armenia-backed separatists seized Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a 1990s war that killed 30,000 people. Despite years of negotiations since a 1994 ceasefire, the two sides have still not signed a peace deal.

Nagorny Karabakh is still recognized as part of Azerbaijan by the United Nations and anyone visiting the territory -- which is only accessible by road from Armenia -- risks being blacklisted by Baku.

Azerbaijan has threatened to take back the disputed region by force if negotiations do not yield results, while Armenia has vowed to retaliate against any military action.

Ruled by strongman President Ilham Aliyev, who took over when his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss, died in 2003, Azerbaijan is gearing up for presidential elections this autumn.

Human rights activists have accused the government of stepping up a campaign to stifle opposition and strangle dissent in the run-up to the poll.

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