Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia, Azerbaijan trade accusations over shelling of civilians despite truce

Relatives mourn over the casket of soldier Albert Hovhanisyan, who was killed in the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, during a funeral ceremony at Yerablur military pantheon in Yerevan on October 10, 2020.
Relatives mourn over the casket of soldier Albert Hovhanisyan, who was killed in the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, during a funeral ceremony at Yerablur military pantheon in Yerevan on October 10, 2020. © Karen Minasyan, AFP

Hopes that a Russian-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh might hold were further dashed Sunday, with both sides accusing the other of intense shelling on civilian areas and escalating two weeks of fierce clashes.

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Azerbaijan's foreign ministry said that overnight shelling by Armenian forces on the country's second largest city, Ganja, had left seven people dead and 33 wounded including children, less than 24 hours after the halt to fighting was supposed to take effect.

Rescuers in red helmets dug through piles of debris with their bare hands in search of signs of survivors, an AFP journalist in the city reported.

They retrieved one nearly naked body and gingerly put it in a white bag to be taken away in an ambulance while several horrified residents watched on and wept.

One witness said they were woken by a huge blast that levelled an entire square block of one- and two-floor houses in the early hours of the morning, leaving nine apartments destroyed.

"Everything I've worked for my entire life has been destroyed," said resident Zagit Aliyev, 68.

The agreement to pause hostilities in order to exchange prisoners and the bodies of people killed after two weeks of fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, was approved by Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in marathon Russia-brokered talks in Moscow and was to begin at noon on Saturday.

'An absolute lie'

On Sunday, the defence ministry in the disputed region insisted Armenian forces were respecting the humanitarian ceasefire and in turn accused Azerbaijan of shelling civilian-populated areas. 

Claims that Armenian forces were responsible for shelling Ganja were "an absolute lie", it added.

The leader of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Arayik Harutyunyan, described the situation as "calmer" on Sunday, but warned that the truce was precarious.

An AFP journalist in the administrative capital of Stepanakert, which has been subjected to heavy bombings since the fighting erupted and is pockmarked with deep craters and unexploded ordnance, reported hearing loud explosions throughout the night.

Vahram Poghosyan, a spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader, said the overnight shelling on Stepanakert was "a disrespect of the agreements reached in Moscow”, and called on the international community to recognise the province's independence as a way to end the fighting.

The disputed territory is home to about 150,000 people, which broke from Azerbaijan's control in a war in the 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. 

Its separatist government is strongly backed by Armenia, which like Azerbaijan gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Azerbaijan: ‘We’ll go to the very end’

The ceasefire, clinched early Saturday morning after talks in Moscow advocated by President Vladimir Putin, was meant to halt fighting to allow ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azeri forces to swap prisoners and war dead.

The Moscow talks were the first diplomatic contact between the two since fighting over the mountainous enclave erupted on September 27, killing hundreds of people.

The enclave is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

Within minutes of the truce taking effect, 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 and killed two civilians.

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Azerbaijan said enemy forces in Karabakh were shelling Azeri territory and that one civilian had been killed. 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 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.

Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said the truce would last only for as long as it took for the International Committee of the Red Cross to arrange the exchange of the dead.

Speaking at a briefing in Baku, he said Azerbaijan hoped and expected to take control of more territory in time.

Armenia’s foreign ministry said it was using all diplomatic channels to try to support the truce, while Nagorno-Karabakh’s foreign ministry accused Azerbaijan of using ceasefire talks as cover to ready military action.

‘Russia cannot afford to step back’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had mediated over the 10 hours of talks, said in a statement early on Saturday the ceasefire had been agreed on humanitarian grounds.

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

Lavrov said Armenia and Azerbaijan had also agreed to enter into what he called substantive peace talks.

Those talks would be held under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, he said. The group is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.

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

Lavrov spoke to the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers by phone on Saturday, the Russian foreign ministry said. Moscow said both sides have reaffirmed their commitment to the ceasefire agreement and the necessity of strictly enforcing it on the ground.

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 Center and a former colonel in the Russian army, said on Twitter 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 Trenin.

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

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 ended with a ceasefire that has been violated repeatedly.

Turkey welcomed Saturday's 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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