Yevlakh (Azerbaijan) (AFP) – Azerbaijani and Armenian separatists in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh held their first direct peace talks on Thursday, after Baku claimed to have regained control of the breakaway region in a blitzkrieg military operation.
Published on: Amended:
Separatists agreed to lay down their arms Wednesday as part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire plan that ended Azerbaijan’s 24-hour offensive to retake land in the center of several decades of conflict.
Azerbaijan’s presidency said the two-hour meeting took place “in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere” in the presence of Russian peacekeepers and that both sides agreed to continue talks.
Baku negotiators presented plans for the “reintegration” of Karabakh’s Armenian population into Azerbaijan and pledged to provide residents with urgently needed fuel, humanitarian supplies and medical care.
While the meeting was taking place, shots rang out Thursday in the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert, despite the truce agreement.
“There was a small exchange of fire outside the city,” Aroutioun Gasparyan, a businessman and father of two children, told AFP. “We are sitting at home and waiting for the results of the negotiations.”
Separatist authorities have accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire, but Baku has denied the allegation.
The regional human rights ombudsman said on social media that “the streets of Stepanakert are full of displaced people, hungry, scared and in uncertainty.”
” Crime against humanity “
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over this small mountainous region.
The years of conflict have been marked by abuses on both sides, and there are fears of a new refugee crisis, with Karabakh’s Armenian population fearing expulsion.
Armenia warned the United Nations on Thursday that Azerbaijan was carrying out “ethnic cleansing” and committing a “crime against humanity” as it regained control.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his country was not considering large-scale evacuations for now but was preparing contingency plans.
The UN Security Council was due to hold an emergency session to discuss the situation in Karabakh after the Azerbaijani assault which separatists say killed 200 people.
The collapse of separatist resistance represents a major victory for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in his quest to bring the Armenian-majority region back under Baku’s control.
Aliyev said his country had restored sovereignty over the region for the first time in decades. Baku insists it now wants to see the “peaceful reintegration” of Karabakh Armenians.
A separatist official said more than 10,000 people had been evacuated from Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Putin meets with Aliyev
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Aliyev to ensure the safety of some 120,000 Armenians living in the territory.
Russia – the traditional regional power broker – sent peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 as part of a deal to end a six-week war in which Azerbaijan regained partial control of the region.
As part of this week’s truce, the separatists said they had agreed to completely dismantle their army and for Armenia to withdraw all forces it had in the region.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said all weapons must be returned.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian separatists seized the region – internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan – in the early 1990s.
This sparked a war that left 30,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The latest surge comes as Moscow gets bogged down in its war with Ukraine and after the United States and the European Union stepped up attempts to find a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Kremlin said Aliyev apologized to Putin for the deaths of an undisclosed number of Russian peacekeepers during Wednesday’s fighting.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has helped Baku boost its military power with combat drones – expressed “wholehearted support” for its traditional ally Azerbaijan in a call with Aliyev.
“The path is not easy”
The apparent capitulation of the separatists has sparked jubilation among Azerbaijanis, hoping that it now heralds a definitive victory and the end of decades of conflict.
But it increases domestic pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has faced harsh criticism at home for making concessions to Azerbaijan since losing swaths of territory in 2020.
Clashes broke out on Wednesday in the capital Yerevan, where riot police were guarding official buildings.
Pashinyan said in a televised speech on Thursday that the path to peace with Azerbaijan, his main rival, was difficult but must nonetheless be pursued.
“This path is not easy, it goes through internal and external shocks, and we must continue it,” he said.
Aliyev had said this week’s events would have a “positive impact” on attempts to negotiate a lasting peace between the two rival Caucasus neighbors.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s membership had been “decided” and that conditions were ripe for reaching a lasting solution.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry said late Wednesday that Azerbaijan had fired on its positions along the border between the two main foes. Such border skirmishes are common.