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Talks held on future of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan claims full control

Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan government met for talks on Thursday to discuss the future of the breakaway region that Azerbaijan claims to fully control following a military offensive this week (Roman Ismailov/Azerbaijan State News Agency Azertac/AP)
Associated Press Reporters

Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan government met for talks on Thursday to discuss the future of the breakaway region that Azerbaijan claims to fully control following a military offensive this week.

Azerbaijan’s state news agency said the talks had ended but gave no details on whether an agreement was reached.

Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and the news agency earlier said the talks between regional leaders and Azerbaijan’s government would focus on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan.

The talks in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh came after local Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to lay down their weapons following an outbreak of fighting this week in the decades-long separatist conflict.

Authorities in the ethnic Armenian region that has run its affairs without international recognition since fighting broke out in the early 1990s declared on Wednesday that local self-defence forces will disarm and disband under a Russia-mediated ceasefire.

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Representatives of the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh arrive for the talks in the city of Yevlakh, Azerbaijan (Roman Ismailov/Azerbaijan State News Agency Azertac/AP)

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev trumpeted victory in a televised address to the nation, saying his country’s military had restored its sovereignty in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On Tuesday, the Azerbaijan army unleashed an artillery barrage and drone attacks against outnumbered and undersupplied pro-Armenian forces, which have been weakened by a blockade of the region in the southern Caucasus Mountains that is recognised internationally as being part of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan said at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting. The figures could not immediately be independently verified.

Azerbaijan’s move to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume between it and Armenia, which have been locked in a struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh since a separatist war there ended in 1994.

The hostilities worsened an already grim humanitarian situation for residents who have endured shortages of food and medicine for months as Azerbaijan enforced a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

The UN Security Council scheduled an urgent meeting on Thursday on the Azerbaijani offensive at the request of France.

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Russian peacekeepers guard a gate into a camp near Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/AP)

On Thursday, authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire agreement by firing on Stepanakert in the disputed region, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said allegations of an attack were “completely false”, the Azerbaijan news agency reported.

In a phone call on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Mr Aliyev that the rights and security of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh should be guaranteed, according to Russian state news agency Tass.

Mr Aliyev apologised to Mr Putin during the call for the death of Russian peacekeepers in the region on Wednesday, Tass said, citing the Kremlin press service.

Russia’s defence ministry said some of its peacekeepers were killed, though it did not say how many or whether it happened before or after the start of the ceasefire.

On Thursday, Russia’s defence ministry reported that about 5,000 civilians in the region had been evacuated to a camp operated by Russian peacekeepers to avoid the fighting. Many others gathered at the airport in Stepanakert on Wednesday, hoping to flee the region.

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Police officers try to block an entrance of a government building during a protest against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan, Armenia (Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/AP)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a speech that fighting had decreased following the truce, emphasising that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are fully responsible for residents’ security.

Mr Pashinyan, who has previously recognised Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, said Armenia would not be drawn into the fighting.

He said his government did not take part in negotiating the deal, but “has taken note” of the decision made by the region’s separatist authorities.

He again denied any Armenian troops are in the region, even though separatist authorities said they were in Nagorno-Karabakh and would pull out as part of the truce.

Protesters rallied in the Armenian capital of Yerevan for a second day on Wednesday, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the US is “deeply concerned” about Azerbaijan’s military actions.

“We have repeatedly emphasised the use of force is absolutely unacceptable,” he said, adding that the US is closely watching the worsening humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

During another war that lasted six weeks in 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed broad swathes of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories that were held for decades by Armenian forces.

More than 6,700 people died in the fighting, which ended with a Russian-brokered peace agreement. Moscow deployed about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the region.

The conflict has long drawn in powerful regional players, including Russia and Turkey. While Russia took on a mediating role, Turkey threw its weight behind longtime ally Azerbaijan.

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Ethnic Armenians gather in a Russian peacekeepers’ camp near Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/AP)

Russia has been Armenia’s main economic partner and ally since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and has a military base in the country.

Mr Pashinyan, however, has been increasingly critical of Moscow’s role, emphasising its failure to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and arguing that Armenia needs to turn to the West to ensure its security. Moscow, in turn, has expressed dismay about Mr Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin spoke by phone with Mr Pashinyan on Wednesday, welcoming the deal to end the hostilities and start talks.

The separatists’ quick capitulation reflected their weakness following the Armenian forces’ defeat in the 2020 war and the loss of the only road linking the region to Armenia.

While many in Armenia blamed Russia for the defeat of the separatists, Moscow pointed to Mr Pashinyan’s own recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.

“Undoubtedly, Karabakh is Azerbaijan’s internal business,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Azerbaijan is acting on its own territory, which was recognised by the leadership of Armenia.”

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Mr Aliyev and “condemned Azerbaijan’s decision to use force … at the risk of worsening the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and compromising ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and lasting peace,” the French presidential office said.

Mr Macron “stressed the need to respect” the ceasefire and “to provide guarantees on the rights and security of the people of Karabakh, in line with international law”.

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Russian peacekeepers help ethnic Armenians leave a truck at a camp near Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh (Russian Defence Ministry Press Service/AP)

Azerbaijan presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said the government is “ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs”.

In announcing its military operation on Tuesday, Azerbaijan aired a long list of grievances, accusing pro-Armenian forces of attacking its positions, planting land mines and engaging in sabotage.

Mr Aliyev insisted that the Azerbaijani army struck only military facilities during the fighting, but separatist officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Stepanakert and other areas came under “intense shelling”.

Significant damage was visible in the city, with shop windows blown out and vehicles apparently hit by shrapnel.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, killing one civilian.