A massive conflict in Azerbaijan has threatened to spill over, with 32 already confirmed dead after a clash involving Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh, a heavily disputed territory.
The unfolding crisis on Europe’s doorstep has added to tensions in the region. The risk of conflict grew in 2022, due increased militarisation and frequent ceasefire violations.
Multiple violations of a 2020 ceasefire eventually transformed into a two-day conflict beginning September 13, 2022. The death toll has been disputed, with estimates ranging from one to 300 in the cross-border dispute.
Azerbaijan’s operation will end if Armenian separatists “lay down their arms”, President Ilham Aliyev said in a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to a presidency statement Wednesday.
Aliyev told Blinken “that anti-terrorist measures will be stopped if (Karabakh forces) lay down their arms”, according to the statement released after Tuesday’s call.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said its forces had taken control of more than 60 military positions during “localised anti-terrorist measures” in the mountainous breakaway region on Tuesday, which separatists said had been rocked by artillery, aircraft and drones.
The separatist movement eventually announced they would cease hostilities, signalling the end of an “anti-terror” operation late on Wednesday.
“Through the mediation of the command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, an agreement was reached on the complete cessation of hostilities from 1pm on 20 September, 2023,” the region’s self-proclaimed presidency said in a statement on social media.
Aliyev told Blinken that “representatives of the Armenian residents living in the Karabakh region of our country were invited to a dialogue several times by the administration of the President of Azerbaijan to discuss reintegration issues, but they refused.”
“However, they were invited to a dialogue again when local anti-terrorist measures continued,” he said, according to a readout of the call.
The fighting so far has killed at least 27 people, including two civilians, the separatists said. Russia said its 2,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh was evacuating civilians and providing medical assistance.
Aliyev said the civilian population and infrastructure were not being targeted in the operation, and that only “legitimate military targets” had been destroyed.
Blinken said in a statement on Tuesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” by Azerbaijan’s military operation and called on it to “cease these actions immediately”.
It came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate end to the fighting” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The Secretary-General calls in the strongest terms for an immediate end to the fighting, de-escalation, and stricter observance of the 2020 ceasefire and principles of international humanitarian law,” said Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Pope Francis also turned his focus to the crisis, calling for all sides to “silence their weapons”.
“Yesterday I received worrying news from Nagorno-Karabakh … where the already critical humanitarian situation is now worsened by further armed clashes,” the 86-year-old said at the end of his weekly audience.
“I address my appeal to all parties involved and to the international community to silence their weapons and make every effort to find peaceful solutions for the good of the people and respect for human dignity.”
Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh said they had accepted Baku’s proposal for talks to integrate the disputed region.
“Issues raised by the Azerbaijani side on reintegration, ensuring the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh … will be discussed at a meeting between representatives of the local Armenian population and the central authorities of the Republic Azerbaijan,” separatist authorities said Wednesday.
“They will take place in the city of Yevlakh on September 21.”
– with AFP