Azerbaijan and Armenia said skirmishes in and around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region were hindering a humanitarian truce secured by Russia in overnight talks, although fighting had eased.
The former Soviet republics blamed each other for violating the cease fire in the south of the conflict zone. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry accused Armenians of firing on its positions in the east and northeast.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry denied that, while Nagorno-Karabakh’s armed forces said in a Facebook post that they’d ordered a halt to fighting but were “returning fire” from Azerbaijan in the south.
Moscow hosted the first talks between the bitter rivals in an attempt to halt the worst fighting in decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus. The cease-fire was to start at 12 p.m. local time on Saturday to allow the sides to exchange prisoners and recover bodies of those killed in the fighting that flared up almost two weeks ago.
While it was generally calm along the border, exchange and recovery operations were halted by “local provocations” and will be carried out only in the presence of the International Red Cross, Armenian Defense Ministry representative Artsrun Hovhannisyan said at a news briefing.
Azerbaijan’s army had stopped firing but was “forced to respond” to attacks, presidential foreign policy aide Hikmet Hajiyev said by message.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with his counterparts from Armenia and Azerbaijan and they reiterated their commitment to the cease-fire, the ministry in Moscow said in a statement Saturday evening. The countries had agreed to start “substantive negotiations” to resolve the long-running territorial clash, the ministry said in a statement early Saturday after more than 10 hours of talks.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that a political resolution to the conflict will be possible if Armenia commits to a cease-fire, in an interview with Russia’s RBC television channel. But he said the country “will carry on until the very end” to restore its control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts that are internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
A solution will depend on compromise, and “Azerbaijan is not ready,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview with German ZDF TV channel. Armenia has said it’s defending Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination after the Armenian majority declared independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lavrov led the marathon negotiations after the conflict reignited on Sept. 27. Intense fighting has killed hundreds and left a trail of devastation as the warring sides ignored repeated calls for a cease-fire by France, Russia and the U.S., which act as the so-called Minsk Group of mediators. The group has failed to get Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign a final peace deal since Moscow brokered a truce in 1994.
“Azerbaijan will not accept an imitation of talks” like those held in the past three decades, Azerbaijan’s Hajiyev said at a news conference in Baku on Saturday, calling the cease-fire a temporary measure. Azerbaijan has said Turkey, which has backed it in the conflict, should be involved in mediation.
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Armenia has accused Turkey of involvement in the fighting and of funneling extremists from Syria to join the combat on Azerbaijan’s side. Both Ankara and Baku have denied they’re taking part in the fighting or that Syrian militants are present.
“While the humanitarian truce for the exchange of hostages and bodies of those killed is an important first step, it won’t be the lasting solution,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday, reiterating Turkey’s full support for Azerbaijan.
Armenian President Armen Sarkissian said in a Bloomberg TV interview Friday that he’d asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to “put pressure on Turkey that they should not get involved.” Armenia won’t have “any other choice” but to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence if fighting continues, he said.
The latest attempt to restore a cease-fire came after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a series of phone talks with Aliyev and Pashinyan.
“Putin could no longer avoid intervening” in the crisis in Russia’s backyard as Turkey asserted itself, said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs expert in Moscow and former diplomat.- Bloomberg