Karabakh Armenians demand promises before handing over weapons to Azerbaijan

  • Ethnic Armenian official: The delivery of weapons has not yet been agreed upon
  • The talks were held after Azerbaijan regained control of Karabakh
  • Azerbaijan agrees to send fuel and aid
  • Gunfire was heard in the main city of Karabakh

GORIS, Armenia (Reuters) – Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh need security guarantees before giving up their weapons, an adviser to their leader said on Thursday, a day after Azerbaijan said it had brought the breakaway region back under its control.

Armenian authorities in Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire agreed upon on Wednesday after a lightning Azerbaijani attack forced the separatists to agree to disarm.

The Defense Ministry in Baku said the claim that its forces had violated the ceasefire was “completely false.” Two sources in the main city of Karabakh told Reuters they heard heavy gunfire on Thursday morning, but it was not clear who was firing.

The shooting and conflicting accounts highlighted the possibility of more bloodshed despite an agreement reached 24 hours earlier that Azerbaijan said restored its sovereignty over Karabakh after 35 years of conflict.

David Babayan, an advisor to the Armenian separatist leader in Nagorno-Karabakh, Samvel Shahramanyan, told Reuters, “We have an agreement on stopping military action, but we are waiting for a final agreement. The talks are continuing.”

In response to a question about giving up weapons, Babayan said that his people cannot be left to die, so security guarantees are needed first.

“There are still a whole host of questions that need to be resolved,” he added. “At any moment they could destroy us and commit genocide against us.”

Azerbaijan said it had agreed to a request to provide fuel and humanitarian aid to Karabakh, after imposing a virtual blockade over the past nine months.

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The talks took place in the Azerbaijani city of Yavlakh between Azerbaijan and representatives of the Republic of Artsakh, as Karabakh Armenians call themselves.

Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country, has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says it wants a smooth “reintegration” of the region’s Christian and Armenian Christian populations.

President Ilham Aliyev said on Wednesday that Armenians would enjoy their full educational, cultural and religious rights, but he wrapped his message in harsh nationalist rhetoric.

He said on state television that all ethnic groups and religions would unite “in one fist – for Azerbaijan, for dignity, for the motherland.”

“Criminal Military Council”

Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has enjoyed de facto independence since its secession in a war in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Regaining control was a cherished dream for Aliyev, who launched a lightning military operation on Tuesday that quickly penetrated the Armenian lines in Karabakh.

The Karabakh authorities said that at least 200 people were killed on their part. Aliyev said that some Azerbaijanis were killed as “martyrs” and other soldiers were injured, without specifying their number.

In his address to the nation, Aliyev focused his anger on Karabakh’s leadership: “After the surrender of the criminal junta, this source of tension, this den of poison, has been consigned to history.”

The defeat is a bitter pill to swallow for the separatists and Armenia, which has helped its relatives in the enclave maintain their autonomy and has fought two wars with Azerbaijan in the space of 30 years.

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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan admitted in a speech on the occasion of his country’s Independence Day that Armenians are suffering from “indescribable physical and psychological suffering.”

But he said that his country urgently needs peace to ensure its survival.

Peace Project

Aliyev said on Wednesday that the restraint shown by Armenia in not trying to disrupt the Baku attack would remove an obstacle to peace between the two Caucasian neighbors. The Russian Information Agency quoted one of Aliyev’s aides as saying that Baku had delivered a new draft of the peace agreement to Yerevan.

Russia, which has peacekeeping forces in the region, did nothing to stand in the way of the Azerbaijani attack — a source of bitter resentment for many Armenians who looked to Moscow as an ally and protector.

Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that Moscow believes the question of who belongs to Karabakh has now been resolved, and that this represents a major move towards a peace treaty.

In Yerevan, thousands of demonstrators on Wednesday evening denounced their government’s failure to protect Karabakh.

Many called for the resignation of Pashinyan, who oversaw defeat by Azerbaijan in a six-week war in 2020 that paved the way for the loss of Karabakh this week, but nonetheless won re-election several months later.

In Karabakh, many Armenians have fled their homes over the past three days, some gathered at the main city’s airport and others sought refuge with Russian peacekeepers.

On the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan, on a remote hillside near the village of Kornidzor, Armenian men stood in a line of about 20 cars waiting for friends and family trapped in Karabakh, if they would be allowed to leave.

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A man who gave his name as Hayk said he spent days at the border hoping to find his father, who was in Karabakh on work when the blockade was imposed last December and has been trapped ever since.

Residents of Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh that Azerbaijan calls Khankendi, said electricity was out, shops were empty, and people were setting fires in courtyards to cook whatever food they could find.

“There are a lot of people displaced from the villages. They have just been moved to the city and have nowhere to spend the night,” said Jayani Sarkissian, who runs a health project in the city.

She told Reuters in an audio message that rumors are spreading about what will happen next and that people are in a state of “chaos and confusion.”

(Reporting by Felix Light in Juris and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Preparing by Muhammad for the Arabic Bulletin) Additional reporting by Nelya Bagirova; Writing by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Gareth Jones

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As Moscow bureau chief, Guy manages coverage of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Before Moscow, Guy ran Brexit coverage as London Bureau Chief (2012-2022). And on Brexit night, his team achieved one of Reuters’ historic victories – breaking Brexit news first to the world and the financial markets. Jay graduated from the London School of Economics and began his career as an intern at Bloomberg. He has spent more than 14 years covering the former Soviet Union. He speaks Russian fluently. Contact: +447825218698

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