Smoke rises after shelling in Stepanakert on October 9, 2020, during ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Smoke rises after shelling in Stepanakert on October 9, 2020, during ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Photo: AFP

With Russia's mediation, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh starting Saturday following two weeks of heavy fighting that marked the worst outbreak of hostilities in the separatist region in more than a quarter-century.

The countries' foreign ministers said in a statement that the truce is intended to exchange prisoners and recover the dead, adding that specific details will be agreed on later. Minutes after it entered force at noon (0800 GMT), Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of breaching the cease-fire with new attacks. The claims couldn't be independently verified.

The announcement of the truce followed 10 hours of talks in Moscow sponsored by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who read the statement. It stipulated that the cease-fire should pave the way for talks on settling the conflict.

If the truce holds, it would mark a major diplomatic coup for Russia, which has a security pact with Armenia but also cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan.

The latest outburst of fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces began September 27 and left hundreds of people dead in the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh since a separatist war there ended in 1994. The region lies in Azerbaijan but has been under control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.

The talks between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were held on invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who brokered the cease-fire in a series of calls with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

Since the start of the latest fighting, Armenia said it was open to a cease-fire, while Azerbaijan insisted that it should be conditional on the Armenian forces' withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing that the failure of international efforts to negotiate a political settlement left it no other choice but to resort to force.

Russia has co-sponsored peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh together with the United States and France as co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group, which is working under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They haven't produced any deal, leaving Azerbaijan increasingly exasperated.

Speaking in an address to the nation Friday hours before the cease-fire deal was reached, the Azerbaijani president insisted on his country's right to reclaim its territory by force after nearly three decades of international talks that "haven't yielded an inch of progress." Fighting with heavy artillery, warplanes and drones has engulfed Nagorno-Karabakh, with both sides accusing each other of targeting residential areas and civilian infrastructure.

According to the Nagorno-Karabakh military, 404 of its servicemen have been killed since September 27. Azerbaijan hasn't provided details on its military losses. Scores of civilians on both sides also have been killed.

Shortly after the truce took force, the Armenian military accused Azerbaijan of shelling the area near the town of Kapan in southeastern Armenia, killing one civilian. Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry rejected the claim as a "provocation." The Azerbaijani military, in turn, accused Armenia of striking the Terter and Agdam regions of Azerbaijan with missiles. Armenia's Defence Ministry denied that.

The current escalation marked the first time that Azerbaijan's ally Turkey took a high profile in the conflict, offering strong political support. Over the past few years, Turkey provided Azerbaijan with state-of-the-art weapons, including drones and rocket systems that helped the Azerbaijani military outgun the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist forces in the latest fighting.

Armenian officials say Turkey is involved in the conflict and is sending Syrian mercenaries to fight on Azerbaijan's side. Turkey has denied deploying combatants to the region, but a Syrian war monitor and three Syria-based opposition activists have confirmed that Turkey has sent hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In an interview with CNN Arabic aired Thursday, Azerbaijan's president admitted that Turkish F-16 fighter jets have stayed on in Azerbaijan weeks after a joint military exercise, but insisted that they have remained grounded.

Armenian officials had earlier claimed that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian warplane, a claim that both Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied.

Turkey's involvement in the conflict raised painful memories in Armenia, where an estimated 1.5 million died in massacres, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915. The event is widely viewed by historians as genocide, but Turkey denies that.

Turkey's highly visible role in the conflict worried Russia, which has a military base in Armenia. The two countries are linked by a security treaty obliging Moscow to offer support to its ally if it comes under aggression.

But at the same time, Russia has sought to maintain strong economic and political ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan and ward off Turkey's attempt to increase its influence in the South Caucasus without ruining its delicate relations with Ankara.

Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have negotiated a series of deals to coordinate their conflicting interests in Syria and Libya and expanded their economic ties.

A lasting cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh would allow the Kremlin to stem Turkey's bid to expand its clout in Russia's backyard without ruining its strategic relationship with Ankara.

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