Russia sponsors Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire talks

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia sought to halt the worst escalation of fighting in the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region in more than a quarter of a century by holding ceasefire talks on Friday.
Late Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement calling for a halt to the fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces, which has raged in the region for nearly two weeks. The Kremlin said Putin's initiative followed a series of calls made by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
The most recent outbreak of fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces began on September 27 and marked the greatest escalation in the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The region is located in Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of the Armenian-backed Armed Forces since the end of a separatist war in 1994.
The Kremlin said Putin proposed calling for a ceasefire to swap prisoners and collect the bodies of dead soldiers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts to the Ministry's villa in Moscow on Friday afternoon.
Armenia said it was open to a ceasefire, while Azerbaijan made a possible ceasefire conditional on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing that the failure of international efforts to negotiate an agreement left no choice but to try take back his country by force.
In an address to the nation, the Azerbaijani President said that nearly three decades of international talks "have not brought an inch of progress, we have not got an inch of the occupied land back".
"Mediators and leaders of some international organizations have declared that there is no military solution to the conflict," said Aliyev. “I do not agree with the thesis and I was right. The conflict will now be resolved by military means, and political means will come next. "
Azerbaijani officials and separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said the heavy shelling continued overnight.
The fight with heavy artillery, fighter planes and drones devoured Nagorno-Karabakh despite numerous international calls for a ceasefire. Both sides have accused each other of targeting residential areas and civil infrastructure.
Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, was heavily shelled. The residents live in emergency shelters, some of which are in the basement of apartment buildings.
On Thursday, a historic cathedral in the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh was shelled, a shell pierced the dome and damaged the interior. No one was injured in the attack, but hours later, further fire wounded two Russian journalists who were inspecting the damage. The Azerbaijani military denied targeting the cathedral.
According to the Nagorno-Karabakh military, 376 of its soldiers have been killed since September 27. Azerbaijan did not provide any information about its military casualties. Numerous civilians on both sides were also killed.
According to Armenian officials, Turkey is involved in the conflict and is sending Syrian mercenaries to fight on the Azerbaijani side. Turkey has publicly supported Azerbaijan in the conflict, but has refused to send combatants to the region.
In an interview with CNN Arabic broadcast on Thursday, Azerbaijan's president admitted that Turkish F-16 fighter planes stayed weeks after a joint military exercise in Azerbaijan, but insisted they stayed on the ground. Armenian officials had previously claimed that a Turkish F-16 had shot down an Armenian fighter plane, which both Turkey and Azerbaijan had denied.
Aliyev's office said French President Emmanuel Macron called him Friday to discuss the conflict but did not provide details of the conversation. The call followed Macron's conversation with the Armenian prime minister late Thursday.
Macron's office expressed hope that a ceasefire could be negotiated soon and noted that it is coordinating its efforts with the Kremlin.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited the Armenian capital on Friday to attend a meeting of a Moscow-dominated economic alliance of the former Soviet states.
Mishustin stressed the need to "secure an immediate ceasefire and make diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict," adding that Russia is ready to work with the United States and France, co-sponsors of the so-called Minsk Group under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
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Associated press writers Avet Demourian from Yerevan, Armenia, Aida Sultanova from Baku, Azerbaijan and Sylvie Corbet from Paris contributed to this report.

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