Red Cross Karabakh head urges rivals to spare civilians
The head of a Red Cross mission monitoring the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict called on Thursday for all parties to stop shelling civilians and respect international law in fighting that has killed nearly 1,000 people.
Gerardo Moloeznik also told AFP that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stood ready to help the bitter foes Azerbaijan and Armenia repatriate bodies for burial at home.
His comments came a day after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ruled out a diplomatic solution to the bloodiest clashes over the disputed region since a post-Soviet war killed 30,000 and ended in a fragile truce.
"We insist that the sides to the conflict comply with international humanitarian law," Moloeznik said in an interview at the ICRC's walled-off headquarters in Azerbaijan's frontline region town of Barda.
"This is very important. They have to spare the lives of civilians, civilian infrastructure, because there have been situations in which they have been using heavy artillery in populated areas."
Separatist forces have reported the deaths of nearly 40 civilians in the unrecognised Christian Armenian enclave of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani civilian toll has surpassed 60 -- 25 of the deaths coming in two missile attacks that levelled rows of houses in the Caucasus country's second city of Ganja.
Azerbaijan has been heavily shelling the separatist capital Stepanakert and other towns across the mountainous region of 140,000.
Exchange of bodies
Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed two humanitarian truces since the latest fighting erupted on September 27.
Their main purpose was to give the sides a chance to exchange bodies and restart talks that could find a lasting solution to the conflict that has festered since Soviet times.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will also try calm hostilities when he hosts the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign minister for separate talks Friday.
But Pashinyan said on Wednesday the conflict "will not have a diplomatic solution for a long time".
"There is victory and there is defeat. There is no middle ground," the Armenian prime minister said in a televised address.
And Moloeznik said the rivals have so far failed to come to an agreement about how to repatriate soldiers killed at the front.
"Once there are the conditions and the agreements, the ICRC will play its role," he said.
"The ICRC stands ready to play its neutral role when the sides come to an agreement and request our support."
Moloeznik said his teams were regularly approached by worried families asking if the Red Cross had any information about their missing loved ones.
Azerbaijan has not reported any military casualties since the fighting broke out.
But AFP has attended a private family funeral for a soldier whose body was buried in a row of other fresh graves.
"What we provide is the hotline number that the ministry of defence of Azerbaijan has established," Moloeznik said.
'Winter is coming'
AFP teams on both sides of the frontline have seen houses and even entire villages turned to rubble by repeated rocket and mortar attacks.
Some of those displaced by the fighting have found temporary refuge in schools and unheated basements.
The ICRC office in Barda was overwhelmed by dozens of Azerbaijanis looking for small cash payments and other forms of assistance from the Geneva-based humanitarian group.
Moloeznik said his teams come across people suffering psychological trauma from weeks of almost uninterrupted shelling.
"We have seen the stress generation by these events. It's very reflected on the families," he said.
"They have been going through a very stressful situation."
He added that their hardships were being compounded by the approaching winter and the economic chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic.
"When families are on the move and are looking for safety, they end up in places that are not prepared to host them," he said.
"And in terms of weather conditions, it will be difficult for them because winter is coming."