Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had halted military action in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenian separatist forces there agreed to a ceasefire whose terms signaled the area would return to Baku’s control.
Under the agreement, confirmed by both sides and effective from 1 p.m. (0900 GMT) on Wednesday, separatist forces will disband and disarm and talks on the future of the region and the ethnic Armenians who live there will start on Thursday.
Karabakh, a mountainous area in the volatile wider South Caucasus region, is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it has been run by separatist Armenian authorities who call the area their ancestral homeland.
Fearful of what the future might hold, thousands of Armenians massed at the airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh which is known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan. Others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers.
Azerbaijan, which sent troops backed by artillery strikes into Karabakh on Tuesday to bring the breakaway region to heel, says it plans to integrate the area’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians and that their rights will be protected under the constitution.
But some Armenians - given the region has been at the center of two wars since the 1991 Soviet fall - are skeptical and neighboring Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of trying to ethnically cleanse the territory, something Baku denies.
“They are basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan - this is basically a typical ethnical cleansing operation,” Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration, told Reuters.
He said that close to 100 people had been killed and hundreds more injured in the fighting. Reuters could not verify that.
Armenian PM under pressure
The outcome, a military victory for Turkey-backed Azerbaijan whose forces far outnumbered the separatists, could cause political turmoil in neighboring Armenia, where some political forces are angry that Yerevan was unable to do more to protect the Karabakh Armenians.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was already facing calls on Wednesday from some opponents to resign.
Some Armenians are also furious that Russia, which has peacekeepers on the ground and helped broker an earlier ceasefire deal in 2020 following a 44-day war, was unable to stop Azerbaijan.
The Kremlin rejected that criticism on Wednesday and President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that Russian peacekeepers would protect Karabakh’s civilian population.
Separatists running the self-styled “Republic of Artsakh” said they had been forced to agree to Azerbaijan’s terms - relayed by Russian peacekeepers - after Baku’s army broke through their lines and seized a number of strategic locations while the world did nothing.
“The authorities of the Republic of Artsakh accept the proposal from the command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to cease fire,” they said in a statement.
Azerbaijan had said it could no longer tolerate a situation it regarded as a threat to its security and territorial sovereignty.
Handover of weapons
Separatist fighters were expected to leave Karabakh for Armenia and hand over their tanks and artillery later on Wednesday under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers.
Armenia, which says it has no military forces in Karabakh despite Azerbaijani assertions, did not intervene militarily.
It was unclear how many ethnic Armenians would opt to stay in Karabakh.
Russia’s defense ministry, which has thousands of peacekeepers on the ground, broadcast footage of Karabakh Armenians being given temporary shelter at a makeshift Russian military facility.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannissyan told Reuters that Karabakh Armenians could “in an ideal world” live under Azerbaijani rule but that historical experience made it hard to imagine.
Azerbaijan’s military operation had faced sharp criticism from the United States and some European countries.
They said the Karabakh problem should have been solved through talks and that Baku’s actions were worsening an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground following a nine-month blockade of the area by Azerbaijan that caused acute shortages of food and other staples.
Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan’s president, on Wednesday dismissed calls for UN Security Council involvement, saying any issues needed to be solved on the ground.