Talks are held on Nagorno-Karabakh's fate as Azerbaijan claims full control
Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan government held a first round of talks Thursday on the future of the breakaway region that Azerbaijan now says it fully controls following a military offensive this week.
The discussions in the city of Yevlakh focused on the "reintegration" of Nagorno-Karabakh, along with its local ethnic Armenian population, into Azerbaijan in the decades-old conflict, according to the office of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev.
Representatives from the region asked for fuel and food, and Azerbaijani officials agreed to provide humanitarian aid, including energy to heat kindergartens and schools, a statement from Aliyev’s office said. There were reports of blackouts in Stepanakert, the regional capital, and some people had to use campfires to cook what food they could find.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been deprived for months of basic supplies, including medicine, due to a blockade by Azerbaijan that severed the only road link to Armenia in the southern Caucasus Mountains region.
The quick capitulation by the separatists reflected their weakness from the continuing blockade.
A contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region after a six-week war in 2020 that allowed Azerbaijan to reclaim some territory, but that force apparently has been limited in what actions it can take. Recent tensions between Russia and Armenia likely further dampened the Kremlin’s desire to provide support and assistance.
"The local forces, they were never strong. The Azerbaijani army is much better prepared, much better equipped. … So it was quite obvious, you know, that any military action that was to take place in that area, it would lead to the defeat of the local Armenian side," Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The Associated Press. "And any move from the Armenia side could lead to an escalation and then the spread of the war to the Armenian territory,"
Another round of talks will be held soon, Aliyev's office said.
The local Armenian self-defense forces agreed Wednesday to disarm and disband following a military operation launched by Azerbaijan, which ended through a Russian-mediated cease-fire.
Aliyev declared victory in a televised address to the nation, saying his country had restored its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been running its own affairs since the early 1990s though it is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijan army had unleashed artillery and drone attacks Tuesday against the outnumbered and undersupplied pro-Armenian forces in the region.
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.
Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan on Thursday of violating the cease-fire agreement by firing on Stepanakert, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. Shooting was heard on the outskirts of Stepanakert, causing many people to head to the city center or to Russian peacekeeping bases.
However, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied there had been any attack, the Azerbaijan news agency reported.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Thursday evening that "at this moment, there is no direct threat to the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh." He said preparations were being made for receiving Nagorno-Karabakh residents who decide to flee the region.
Azerbaijan’s move to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume. Both sides have been <a href="https://apnews.com/article/europe-azerbaijan-armenia-ap-explains-19c34b27b8f256c4ae02273d252b602f" xmlns="http://iptc.org/std/NITF/2006-10-18/">locked in a struggle</a> over Nagorno-Karabakh since a separatist war there ended in 1994. The 2020 war killed over 6,700 people and saw Azerbaijan reclaim large parts of the region.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled a meeting Thursday on Nagorno-Karabakh at the request of France.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Aliyev on Wednesday and condemned Azerbaijan's use of force "at the risk of worsening the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh," the French presidential office said. It added that Macron "stressed the need to respect" the cease-fire and guarantee "the rights and security of the people of Karabakh, in line with international law."
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about Azerbaijan’s military actions and was closely watching the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In a phone call Thursday with Aliyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin also urged that the rights and security of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh should be guaranteed, according to the Tass news agency.
Aliyev apologized to Putin during the phone call for the deaths of Russian peacekeepers in the region Wednesday, the Kremlin said. Azerbaijan's prosecutor-general's office later said five Russian peacekeepers were shot and killed Wednesday by Azerbaijani troops who mistook them amid fog and rain for Armenian forces and that one other Russian was killed by Armenian fighters.
About 5,000 civilians had been evacuated from a camp operated by the peacekeepers, the Russian Defense Ministry said. Many others gathered Wednesday at the airport in Stepanakert hoping to flee the region.
Azerbaijan presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said the government was "ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs."
Pashinyan, who has previously recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, said his government didn’t 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 were 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 third day Thursday, demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for Pashinyan's resignation. At least 46 people were arrested Thursday night in a large protest outside the main government building in the center of the capital Yerevan, police said.
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.
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.
Pashinyan, however, has been increasingly critical of Moscow’s role, emphasizing 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 Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt.
The Kremlin said Putin spoke by phone with Pashinyan on Wednesday, welcoming the deal to end the hostilities and start talks.
The separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh had been weakened following the Armenian forces’ defeat in the 2020 war and the loss of a road link to Armenia.
While many in Armenia blamed Russia for the defeat of the separatists, Moscow pointed to 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 recognized by the leadership of Armenia."
In announcing its military operation Tuesday, Azerbaijan accused pro-Armenian forces of attacking its positions, planting land mines and engaging in sabotage.
Aliyev insisted his forces struck only military facilities, 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 had killed one civilian in Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control.