Azerbaijan halts operation in breakaway region as Armenian separatists vow to disarm

Ceasefire announced day after Azeri forces launch offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh; director of Israel’s Defense Ministry, a major arms supplier to Baku, visited just before fighting

In this photo taken from video released by the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on September 20, 2023, smoke rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces' positions in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan via AP)
In this photo taken from video released by the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on September 20, 2023, smoke rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces' positions in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan via AP)

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Azerbaijan on Wednesday announced it had halted its military operation in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after separatist Armenian forces agreed to lay down their arms and hold reintegration talks.

Baku and the ethnic-Armenian authorities in Karabakh said a deal was brokered by Russian peacekeepers to stop the fighting a day after Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terrorist operation.”

The separatists said they had committed to a “full dismantlement” of their forces and the withdrawal of Armenian army units from the region, at the center of two wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said in addition that “all weapons and heavy armaments are to be surrendered” under the supervision of Russia’s 2,000-strong peacekeeping force on the ground.

Both sides said talks on reintegrating the breakaway territory into the rest of Azerbaijan would be held on Thursday in the city of Yevlakh.

The stunning collapse of separatist resistance represents a major victory for Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in his quest to bring Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh back under Baku’s control.

This grab taken from a UGC footage provided to AFP by Marut Vanyan on September 19, 2023, shows smoke rising from artillery strikes on a hilltop outside Stepanakert, the capital of the Armenian-populated separatist region within Azerbaijani borders. (Marut Vanyan/UGC/AFP)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a televised address that fighting appeared to have largely subsided and insisted it was “very important” the ceasefire hold.

He repeated a denial that his country’s army was in the enclave and said he expected Russia’s peacekeepers to ensure Karabakh’s ethnic-Armenian residents could stay “in their homes, on their land.”

The latest flare-up comes three years after Azerbaijan recaptured swathes of territory in and around the region in a brief war that dealt a bitter defeat to Armenia.

Armenia said that at least 32 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded by the shelling in Karabakh as the latest onslaught from Azerbaijan saw artillery, aircraft and drone strikes rock the region.

Baku said Tuesday it had taken control of more than 60 military positions during “localized anti-terrorist measures.”

Russian peacekeepers and separatist forces evacuated thousands of civilians from the fighting.

International pressure

The announcement of the ceasefire came after Aliyev warned the military operation would continue until the separatists laid down their weapons, in the face of mounting international pressure to halt fighting.

Russia, the United Nations and Pope Francis added to calls to stop the violence, after the United States and France reached out to the leaders of both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The fresh outburst of fighting came as Moscow, the traditional power broker in the region, is bogged down and distracted by its war on Ukraine, which has left it isolated by the West.

But its peacekeepers on the ground appeared to have played a key role in helping to negotiate the ceasefire and will now oversee its implementation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he now hoped for a “peaceful” resolution in Karabakh, adding that Moscow has been in contact with all sides in the conflict.

In this handout videograb of a footage taken and released by the Russian Defense Ministry on September 20, 2023, Russian peacekeepers help to evacuate refugees from Stepanakert, amid Azerbaijan’s renewed offensive on the region. (Russian Defense Ministry/AFP)

Fears of a fresh war in the volatile Caucasus region have been growing recently, with Armenia accusing Azerbaijan of a troop build-up around the disputed territory.

Fueled by the vast income from its energy resources, Azerbaijan has spent years building up its forces as it harbored the goal of one day retaking the territory it lost to Armenian forces in a war in the 1990s. One of Baku’s main arms suppliers is Israel, which stepped up weapons shipments during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

A day before the recent fighting, Eyal Zamir, director of the Israeli Defense Ministry, visited Azerbaijan and met with the country’s defense minister. The trip came after a number of Israeli transport planes flew to Azerbaijan in recent weeks, according to Army Radio, suggesting recent deliveries of armaments.

Israel is in the midst of a public expansion of bilateral ties with Shiite-majority Azerbaijan. Two key pillars of the relationship are Azerbaijan’s location on Iran’s northern border and the fact that Israel buys over 30 percent of its oil from Baku.

Turkey, a historic ally of Azerbaijan that views mostly Christian Armenia as one of its main regional rivals, had called the latest operation “justified,” while urging “comprehensive negotiations.”

Armenia protests

The latest offensive raised fears that the unrest could destabilize the broader region.

Angry protesters had clashed with police in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, calling on Pashinyan to resign, while the country’s security council warned of large-scale unrest, vowing to take “effective measures” to maintain constitutional order.

More than 30 people were injured in the clashes, the health ministry said.

Protesters clash with police as they call on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign in central Yerevan on September 19, 2023. (Karen Minasyan/AFP)

The fighting in Karabakh erupted hours after Azerbaijan said four police officers and two civilians were killed in mine blasts in Nagorno-Karabakh, with authorities blaming separatists.

Azerbaijan justified its operation citing “systematic” shelling by Armenian-backed forces and accusing them of carrying out “reconnaissance activities” and fortifying defensive positions, accusing separatists of “a high level of combat readiness.”

The flare-up came after Armenian separatists said they had reached an agreement with Azerbaijani authorities to resume aid deliveries to Karabakh.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ethnic Armenian separatists in Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan.

The ensuing conflict claimed some 30,000 lives.

A six-week war in 2020 saw Armenia cede swaths of territory it had controlled since the 1990s.

Most Popular
read more: