Azerbaijan, Armenia Karabakh separatists hold 'constructive' peace talks
Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh held their first direct peace talks on Thursday, after Baku claimed to have regained control over the breakaway region in a lightning military operation.
The separatists agreed to lay down their arms on Wednesday as part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire plan that halted Azerbaijan's 24-hour offensive to retake land at the centre of decades of conflict.
Azerbaijan's presidency said the two-hour meeting had been "held in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere" in the presence of Russian peacekeepers and that both sides had agreed to more talks.
Baku's negotiators presented plans for the "reintegration" of Karabakh's Armenian population into Azerbaijan and pledged to provide urgently needed fuel, humanitarian supplies, and medical care to residents.
While the meeting was happening, gunfire rang out in the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert on Thursday despite the truce deal.
"There was a small exchange of fire outside the city," Arutyun Gasparyan, a businessman and father of two, told AFP. "We are sitting at home and waiting for the results of the talks."
The breakaway authorities accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire, but Baku denied the allegation.
The region's human rights ombudsman said on social media that "the streets of Stepanakert are filled with displaced people, hungry, scared, and in uncertainty".
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the small mountainous region.
The years of conflict have been marked by abuses on both sides, and there are concerns of a fresh refugee crisis as Karabakh's Armenian population fears being forced out.
Armenia warned the United Nations Thursday that Azerbaijan was carrying out "ethnic cleansing" and committing a "crime against humanity" as it regained control.
Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his country did not envisage any large-scale evacuations for now but was preparing contingency plans.
The UN Security Council was due to hold an emergency session to discuss the situation in Karabakh after the Azerbaijani assault that separatists said killed 200 people.
The collapse of the separatist resistance represents a major victory for Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in his quest to bring the Armenian-majority region back under Baku's control.
Aliyev said his country had restored its sovereignty over the region for the first time in decades. Baku insists it now wants to see the "peaceful reintegration" of Karabakh Armenians.
A separatist official said more than 10,000 people had been evacuated from Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Aliyev to ensure the security of the estimated 120,000 Armenians living in the territory.
Russia - the traditional regional powerbroker - sent peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 as part of a deal to end a six-week war in which Azerbaijan regained partial control of the region.
Under this week's truce, the separatists said they had agreed to fully dismantle their army and for Armenia to pull out any forces it had in the region.
Azerbaijan's defence ministry said all weapons were to be surrendered.
After the Soviet Union fell apart, Armenian separatists seized the region - internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan - in the early 1990s.
That sparked a war that left 30,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The latest flare-up comes with Moscow bogged down by its war against Ukraine, and after the United States and European Union ramped up attempts to find a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Kremlin said Aliyev had apologised to Putin over the death of an undisclosed number of Russian peacekeepers during the fighting on Wednesday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - who has helped Baku bolster its military might with combat drones - expressed "wholehearted support" for traditional ally Azerbaijan in a call with Aliyev.
The apparent capitulation of the separatists has sparked jubilation among Azerbaijanis hoping this now heralds a definitive victory and the end of decades of strife.
But it ratchets up domestic pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has faced stinging criticism at home for making concessions to Azerbaijan since losing swathes of territory in 2020.
Clashes broke out Wednesday in the capital Yerevan, where riot police guarded official buildings.
Pashinyan said in a televised address on Thursday that a road to peace with arch-rival Azerbaijan was difficult but must still be pursued.
"This path is not easy, it goes through internal and external shocks, and we must pursue it," he said.
Aliyev had said this week's events would have a "positive impact" on attempts to negotiate a lasting peace between the two feuding Caucasus neighbours.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the question of which country Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to has been "decided" and conditions were in place to reach an enduring solution.
But mutual distrust remains sky-high and finding a lasting settlement to a dispute that has divided the region for decades is a major task.
Armenia's defence ministry late on Wednesday said Azerbaijan had fired on its positions along the border between the arch-foes. Such frontier skirmishes are frequent.