Moscow talks raise hopes of a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
BAKU/YEREVAN: Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces fought new clashes on Friday, while plans to hold talks in Moscow raised hopes of ending the deadliest battles in the South Caucasus for more than 25 years.
The Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers were expected to attend the talks in the Russian capital later on Friday, a day after France, Russia and the United States launched a concerted peace drive at a meeting in Geneva.
“We are moving towards a truce soon even if the situation is still fragile,” French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said after he spoke to the Armenian and Azeri leaders.
The Armenian government said Friday’s talks would focus exclusively on a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian issues, which it identified as exchanges of bodies and prisoners of war.
If the warring sides’ foreign ministers meet, it will be the first direct contact known to have taken place between Armenia and Azerbaijan since new fighting broke out in the former Soviet republics’ decades-old conflict on Sept. 27.
More than 400 people have been killed in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave which under international law belongs to Azerbaijan but is populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.
The fighting has raised fears that Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia, will be dragged into the conflict. It has also increased concern about the security of oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan that carry natural gas and oil to Europe.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said there had been fierce clashes with ethnic Armenian forces during the night along the line of contact that divides the two sides.
Stepanakert, the city ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh consider the capital of an independent state, was being shelled, the enclave’s defence ministry said.
Fighting has continued despite the talks in Geneva on Thursday, details of which have not been released.
Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov agreed to attend the Geneva talks with French, U.S. and Russian envoys. Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan did not take part but was expected to meet officials from the three powers in Moscow on Monday.
Washington, Paris and Moscow have led mediation over Nagorno-Karabakh for almost three decades as co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group. A ceasefire has been violated repeatedly since the end of a 1991-94 war that killed about 30,000 people.
Azerbaijan said on Thursday that 31 Azeri civilians have been killed and 164 wounded since Sept. 27. It has not disclosed information about military casualties.
Nagorno-Karabakh said on Friday 376 of its military personnel and 22 civilians had been killed since Sept. 27.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s main demand for a ceasefire is for Armenia to set a timetable for a withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azeri territories.
Armenia has ruled out a withdrawal from territory it considers its historic homelands. It has also accused Turkey of military involvement in the conflict and sending in mercenaries, allegations denied by Ankara.
In a sign of alarm in the region, the head of a six-country military alliance led by Russia and including Armenia, warned on Thursday that the group could intervene if Armenian sovereignty were threatened.