Armenia, Azerbaijan trade barbs after France pledges new arms to Yerevan

(Reuters) - Armenia and Azerbaijan, trying to work towards a peace treaty after three decades of conflict, traded fresh barbs on Wednesday after France pledged to supply new arms to Yerevan.

The two countries in the South Caucasus have in recent months sought to make progress on a treaty, including the demarcation of borders, with Armenia agreeing to hand over to Azerbaijan four contested border villages.

French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu's announcement on Tuesday that Paris would sell CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to Armenia triggered sharp criticism from Azerbaijan.

"We do not consider France's policy towards the South Caucasus effective. It is a harmful policy," Hikmet Hajiyev, a top foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, told Azerbaijani media.

"This is a blow to regulating relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia."

Armenia's foreign ministry responded that it was "the sovereign right of every state to maintain combat-capable armed forces equipped with modern military assets."

That prompted the Azerbaijani foreign ministry to retort further that Armenia's moves were "illegitimate and represent a threat to Azerbaijan".

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars since the collapse of Soviet rule in the early 1990s, with Azerbaijan retaking large chunks of territory in 2020.

Its forces last year captured the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the chief focus of the long-running conflict. Most of the region's ethnic Armenian population fled to Armenia.

France has a large Armenian diaspora, and is traditionally one of Yerevan's strongest European backers.

Armenia is formally allied to Russia, but has in recent years pivoted towards Western countries, accusing Moscow of failing to protect it. Russia rejects the criticism and has warned Armenia against flirting with the West.

Armenia's territorial concessions -- and the loss of Karabakh -- have prompted a groundswell of recent protests with demands for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign.

(Reporting by Ron Popeski; Editing by Sandra Maler)