Ceasefire curbs Karabakh fighting as Armenia, Azerbaijan trade accusations
Armenia and Azerbaijan on Saturday accused each other of violating a ceasefire that was set to fight the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region for almost two weeks, but the deal appeared to have reduced the intensity of the violence.
An AFP journalist in the regional capital, Stepanakert, said some explosions could be heard in the distance after the midday ceasefire went into effect, but there was none of the shelling that hit the city in recent days. The break lasted into the evening.
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to the ceasefire after 11-hour talks that began in Moscow on Friday. However, it was only minutes after the truce on Saturday for their forces to call for new attacks.
Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, broke out of control of the country in a war in the 1990s that killed around 30,000 people.
The separatist government is strongly supported by Armenia, which, like Azerbaijan, gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The most recent clashes, which broke out on September 27, were the worst since the war of the 1990s. More than 450 people have been reported dead and thousands have fled their homes, fearing that the fighting could lead to devastating conflict.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said that "in disregard of the previously declared humanitarian ceasefire," the Azerbaijani armed forces launched an attack on the frontline at 12:05 pm.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said the Armenian forces also launched attacks on the front lines and shot at populated areas, accusing them of "blatantly violating the ceasefire".
In the evening it was said that the Armenian armed forces had tried to launch an offensive in several areas, but were "forced to withdraw".
- 'These people hate us' -
In Stepanakert, sirens that had been ringing for days to warn of attacks had stopped, and some residents came from shelters to fetch supplies. But few had much hope that the truce would last long.
"I've lived in Azerbaijan for almost 20 years, these people hate us," said 64-year-old Vladimir Barseghyan to AFP in a workshop that made uniforms for fighters at the front. "We don't believe in a truce, they just want to buy some time."
In Barda, an Azerbaijani city about 40 kilometers from the conflict zone, many residents who spoke to AFP were against the ceasefire and supported Baku's campaign to restore control of Karabakh.
"We don't want a ceasefire. You should leave our country," said Zemfira Mammadova, a 71-year-old pensioner.
"They should go out and allow our people to live normal lives. We have nothing to do with them and they should stay away from us."
The ceasefire agreement was announced after talks between the two countries' top diplomats brokered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
He said the ceasefire was agreed "on humanitarian grounds" and would allow the exchange of prisoners and bodies.
The Red Cross offered to act as a "neutral mediator" to facilitate the handover of corpses and inmates.
The Russian ministry said Saturday evening that Lavrov had spoken to his counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan, who "reiterated their commitment to the agreement" and "stressed the need for strict adherence to the agreement".
A senior Azerbaijani official said the ceasefire was "temporary".
"It is a humanitarian ceasefire to exchange corpses and prisoners. It is not a (real) ceasefire," the official said, adding that Baku "had no intention of retracing efforts to regain control of Karabakh."
- Demand for "substantive negotiations" -
Lavrov said Armenia and Azerbaijan reached "substantial negotiations" in the Moscow talks to settle the Karabakh dispute, with France, Russia and the United States remaining long-term mediators.
France demanded strict observance of the armistice "in order to create the conditions for a permanent cessation of hostilities".
Karabakh's declaration of independence has not been recognized by any country, including Armenia, and the international community regards it as part of Azerbaijan.
The return of fighting has raised fears of a full-blown war affecting Turkey, which has strong support for Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military treaty with Armenia.
Turkey said the ceasefire agreement was an important first step, but Armenia had a "last chance" to withdraw from Karabakh.
Since the conflict began, both sides have accused the other of bombarding areas populated by civilians and thousands of people have been displaced as a result of the clashes.
Stepanakert is littered with damaged buildings and unexploded ordnance after days of bombardment. AFP journalists have also seen the destruction in villages in Azerbaijan near the front.
More than 50 civilians have been confirmed killed on both sides, and Armenians have recognized over 400 military deaths, while Azerbaijan has admitted no deaths among its forces.
bur-im-mm-am / adp
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