Azerbaijan on Wednesday announced it had ended its military operation in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after separatist Armenian forces agreed to lay down their arms and hold reintegration talks.
Baku and the ethnic Armenian authorities in Karabakh said a ceasefire deal had been brokered by Russian peacekeepers to stop the fighting a day after Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terrorist operation.”
The separatists said they had committed to a “full dismantlement” of their forces and the withdrawal of Armenian army units from the region, at the centre of two wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said that “all weapons and heavy armaments are to be surrendered” under the supervision of Russia’s 2,000-strong peacekeeping force on the ground.
Both sides said talks on reintegrating the breakaway territory into the rest of Azerbaijan would be held on Thursday in the city of Yevlakh.
Hours after the ceasefire was announced, Azerbaijani presidential foreign policy advisor Hikmet Hajiyev told reporters Baku promised “safe passage” for the separatists who had laid down their arms.
There was no need for the UN Security Council meeting on the crisis that France had called for on Tuesday, he added.
“Azerbaijan’s agenda is about peaceful reintegration of Karabakh Armenians, and Azerbaijan also supports the normalisation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Hajiyev added.
Charles Michel, president of the EU’s Council of Europe, urged Baku to ensure the safety of Karabakh Armenians.
– Years of conflict –
The stunning collapse of separatist resistance represents a major victory for Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in his quest to bring Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh back under Baku’s control.
Jubilant residents in Azerbaijan’s capital expressed hope the deal heralded a definitive victory in — and the end of — the decades-long conflict.
“I was very happy with this news. Finally, the war is over,” 67-year-old pensioner Rana Ahmedova, told AFP.
“This means the end of Armenia,” said the 37-year-old businessman Elbrus Sahverdiyev, echoing the deep-rooted feud being the two nations.
In Yerevan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a televised address that fighting on the ground appeared to have largely subsided and insisted it was “very important” the ceasefire hold.
Again denying his country’s army was in the enclave, he said he expected Russia’s peacekeepers to ensure Karabakh’s 120,000 ethnic-Armenian residents could stay “in their homes, on their land”.
The latest flare-up comes three years after Azerbaijan recaptured swathes of territory in and around the region in a brief war.
Armenia said at least 32 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded by the shelling in Karabakh, as the latest onslaught from Azerbaijan saw artillery, aircraft and drone strikes rock the region.
Baku said it had taken control of more than 90 military positions in the 24-hour offensive. Russian peacekeepers and separatist forces evacuated thousands of civilians from the fighting.
– International pressure –
The years of conflict have been marked by ethnic cleansing and abuses on both sides, and there are concerns of a fresh refugee crisis as Karabakh’s Armenian population fears being forced out.
Footage posted online by local media appeared to show crowds of people gathering at the Russian-controlled airport in separatist stronghold Stepanakert.
The ceasefire announcement came after Aliyev warned the military operation would continue until the separatists laid down their weapons, despite mounting international pressure to halt fighting.
After the United States and France reached out to the leaders of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia, the United Nations and Pope Francis added to calls to stop the violence.
The outburst of fighting came as Moscow, the traditional power broker in the region, is bogged down and distracted by its war on Ukraine, which has left it isolated by the West.
But its peacekeepers there appeared to have played a key role in helping to negotiate the ceasefire and will now oversee its implementation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he now hoped for a “peaceful” resolution in Karabakh, adding that Moscow has been in contact with all sides in the conflict.
– Armenia protests –
Armenia had recently accused Azerbaijan of a troop build-up around the disputed territory and Baku has long harboured the goal of one day retaking the territory it lost to Armenian forces in a war in the 1990s.
Turkey, a historic ally of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan that views mostly Christian Armenia as one of its main regional rivals, had called the operation “justified”, while urging “comprehensive negotiations”.
The capitulation in Karabakh ratchets up domestic pressure on Pashinyan, who has faced stinging criticism at home for making concessions to Azerbaijan since the 2020 loss.
The Armenian leader insisted that his government had not been involved in drafting the latest ceasefire deal.
Small groups of protesters waving the separatist region’s flags blocked a main road in Armenia’s capital Yerevan as riot police protected official buildings.