Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

Shelling mars start of 'humanitarian' ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh

Russian-mediated truce takes effect on Saturday after two weeks of heavy fighting

A ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan got off to a rocky start on Saturday with both sides accusing the other of major violations and Yerevan saying Baku was using the lull as cover to stage a fresh push.

The ceasefire, clinched after marathon talks in Moscow pushed for by President Vladimir Putin, was meant to halt fighting to allow ethnic Armenian forces in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh and Azeri forces to swap prisoners and war dead.

The contested region Nagorno-Karabakh
The contested region Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov clarified on Saturday that the lull would only last for as long as it took for the Red Cross to arrange the exchange of the dead.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had mediated over 10 hours of talks at the first diplomatic contact between the two since fighting over the mountainous enclave erupted on September 27, said the sides had agreed to enter into what he called substantive peace talks.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it stood ready to facilitate the handover of bodies of those killed in action and the simultaneous release of detainees.

Speaking at a briefing in Baku, Mr Bayramov complained that the status quo on the ground did not suit his country and that Azerbaijan hoped and expected to take control of more territory in time.

Within minutes of the truce taking effect from midday, both sides accused each other of breaking it.

The Armenian defence ministry accused Azerbaijan of shelling a settlement inside Armenia, while ethnic Armenian forces in Karabakh alleged that Azeri forces had launched a new offensive five minutes after the truce took hold.

Azerbaijan said enemy forces in Karabakh were shelling Azeri territory. Both sides have consistently denied each others' assertions in what has also become a war of words accompanying the fighting.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev told Russia's RBC news outlet that the warring parties were now engaged in trying to find a political settlement, but suggested there would be further fighting ahead.

"We'll go to the very end and get what rightfully belongs to us," he said.

Armenia also said the status quo was unsustainable and urged the international community to begin recognising the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Not even Armenia currently recognises the breakaway province despite providing hefty financial and military support.

Further talks between the two will be held under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group, Mr Lavrov said.

But Azerbaijan wants a change in the talks' format, has spoken of wanting to get Turkey involved and on Saturday accused France of not being a neutral mediator.

Mr Putin spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone on Saturday about the deal, the Kremlin said. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter the deal was a step towards peace.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre and a former colonel in the Russian army, said on Twitter that any peace talks were likely to fail and that Azerbaijan would continue to press for Armenian forces to leave the enclave, something Armenia would not accept.

Russia could not afford to step back, he said.

"For Russia, the most important issues in the South Caucasus are the security of Russian borders from jihadis coming from the Middle East and elsewhere, and Turkey’s rising role in the region," wrote Mr Trenin.

This means that Moscow can’t walk away from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and allow a war to rage".

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has said that political options would come after the military phase.

“Mediators and leaders of some international organisations have stated that there is no military solution to the conflict,” he said. “I have disagreed with the thesis, and I have been right. The conflict is now being settled by military means and political means will come next.”

Renewed fighting in the decades-old conflict has raised fears of a wider war drawing in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.

The clashes have also increased concern about the security of pipelines that carry Azeri oil and gas to Europe.

The fighting is the worst since a 1991-94 war that killed about 30,000 people and ended with a ceasefire that has been violated repeatedly.

Turkey welcomed the ceasefire deal but said much more was needed.

"The humanitarian ceasefire is a significant first step but will not stand for a lasting solution," the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement. "Turkey will continue to stand by Azerbaijan in the field and at the table".

The Azeri and Turkish foreign ministers also spoke by phone on Saturday.

Fighters paid by Turkey have confirmed to The National reports that Ankara is sending Syrian mercenaries to back Azerbaijan's forces. Turkey has denied deploying combatants to the region.

In an interview with CNN Arabic aired on Thursday, Azerbaijan’s president admitted that Turkish F-16 fighter jets stayed in Azerbaijan weeks after a joint military exercise, but insisted that they remained grounded. Armenian officials had earlier claimed that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian warplane, a claim that both Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied.

Turkey's involvement in the conflict raised painful memories in Armenia, where an estimated 1.5 million died in massacres, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915 as Ottoman officials worried that the Christian Armenians would side with Russia, its enemy in the First World War.

The event is widely viewed by historians as genocide. Turkey denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Updated: October 10, 2020 07:06 PM

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