YEREVAN: Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had halted military action in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenian separatist forces there agreed to a ceasefire whose terms signalled the area would return to Baku’s control.
Under the agreement, confirmed by both sides and effective immediately, separatist forces will disband and disarm and talks on the future of the region and the ethnic Armenians who live there will start on Thursday.
Karabakh, a mountainous area in the volatile wider South Caucasus region, is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it has been run by separatist Armenian authorities who call the area their ancestral homeland.
Fearful of what the future might hold, thousands of Armenians massed at the airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh which is known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan. Others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers.
Azerbaijan, which sent troops backed by artillery strikes into Karabakh on Tuesday to bring the breakaway region to heel, says it plans to integrate the area’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians and that their rights will be protected under the constitution.
But some Armenians _ given the region has been at the centre of two wars since the 1991 demise of Soviet Union _ are sceptical and neighbouring Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of trying to ethnically cleanse the territory, something Baku denies.
“They are basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan _ this is basically a typical ethnical cleansing operation,” Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration, said.
He said that close to 100 people had been killed and hundreds more injured in the fighting.
Armenian PM under pressure
The outcome, a military victory for Turkiye-backed Azerbaijan whose forces far outnumbered the separatists, could cause political turmoil in neighbouring Armenia, where some political forces are angry that Yerevan was unable to do more to protect the Karabakh Armenians.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was already facing calls from some opponents to resign.
Some Armenians are also furious that Russia, which has peacekeepers on the ground and helped broker an earlier ceasefire deal in 2020 following a 44-day war, was unable to stop Azerbaijan.
The Kremlin rejected that criticism and President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that Russian peacekeepers would protect Karabakh’s civilian population.
Separatists running the self-styled “Republic of Artsakh” said they had been forced to agree to Azerbaijan’s terms _ relayed by Russian peacekeepers _ after Baku’s army broke through their lines and seized a number of strategic locations while the world did nothing.
Azerbaijan had said it could no longer tolerate a situation it regarded as a threat to its security and territorial sovereignty.
Separatist fighters are expected to leave Karabakh for Armenia and hand over their tanks and artillery under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers.
Armenia, which says it has no military forces in Karabakh despite Azerbaijani assertions, did not intervene militarily.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2023