Azerbaijan claimed full control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region Wednesday after local Armenian forces there agreed to lay down their weapons following the latest outbreak of fighting in the decades-long separatist conflict.
Authorities in the ethnic Armenian region that has run its affairs without international recognition since fighting broke out in the early 1990s declared around midday that local self-defense forces will disarm and disband under a Russia-mediated cease-fire.
They also said representatives of the region will start talks Thursday with the Baku government on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev trumpeted victory in a televised address to the nation, saying that “in just one day, Azerbaijan fulfilled all the tasks set as part of local anti-terrorist measures” and “restored its sovereignty.”
On Tuesday, the Azerbaijan army unleashed an artillery barrage and drone attacks against outnumbered and undersupplied pro-Armenian forces, which have been weakened by a blockade of the region in the southern Caucasus Mountains that is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan said at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting. He said earlier that children were among the dead and wounded.
His casualty figures could not immediately be independently verified.
The hostilities worsened an already grim humanitarian situation for residents who have endured food and medicine shortages for months as Azerbaijan enforced a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
Thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh residents flocked to a camp operated by Russian peacekeepers to avoid the fighting, while many others gathered at the airport of the regional capital, Stepanakert, hoping to flee the region.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a speech to the nation that fighting decreased following the truce, emphasizing that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are fully responsible for its residents security.
“If peacekeepers have proposed a peace deal, it means that they completely and without any reservations accepted the responsibility of ensuring the security of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, and provide the conditions and the rights for them to live on their land and in their homes safely,” he said.
Pashinyan, who has previously recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, said Armenia wouldn’t be drawn into the fighting. He said his government didn’t take part in negotiating the deal, but “has taken note” of the decision made by the region’s separatist authorities.
He again denied any Armenian troops were in the region, even though separatist authorities said they were in Nagorno-Karabakh and would pull out as part of the truce.
Protesters rallied in the Armenian capital of Yerevan for a second straight day Wednesday, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about Azerbaijan’s military actions. “We have repeatedly emphasized the use of force is absolutely unacceptable,” he said, adding that the U.S. was closely watching the worsening humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. And the U.N. Security Council scheduled an urgent meeting Thursday on the Azerbaijani offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh at the request of France.
Azerbaijan’s move to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume between the two neighbors, which have been locked in a struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
During another war that lasted for six weeks in 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed broad swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories that were held for decades by Armenian forces. More than 6,700 people died in the fighting, which ended with a Russian-brokered peace agreement. Moscow deployed about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the region.
The conflict has long drawn in powerful regional players, including Russia and Turkey. While Russia took on the mediating role, Turkey threw its weight behind longtime ally Azerbaijan.
Russia has been Armenia’s main economic partner and ally since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and has a military base in the country.
Pashinyan, however, has been increasingly critical of Moscow’s role, emphasizing its failure to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and arguing that Armenia needs to turn to the West to ensure its security. Moscow, in turn, has expressed dismay about Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Pashinyan on Wednesday, welcoming the deal to end the hostilities and start talks between Azerbaijani officials and representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said some of its peacekeepers were killed Wednesday, although it didn’t say how many and whether it happened before or after the start of the cease-fire. The ministry said the peacekeeping contingent had evacuated more than 3,100 civilians.
The separatists’ quick capitulation reflected their weakness following the Armenian forces’ defeat in the 2020 war and the loss of the only road linking the region to Armenia.
Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said the separatist forces, which consisted of several thousand poorly supplied men, were “probably not a match for the Azerbaijani forces.”
While many in Armenia blamed Russia for the defeat of the separatists, Moscow pointed to Pashinyan’s own recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.
“Undoubtedly, Karabakh is Azerbaijan’s internal business,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Azerbaijan is acting on its own territory, which was recognized by the leadership of Armenia.”
He voiced hope that Azerbaijan would respect the rights of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Aliyev and “condemned Azerbaijan’s decision to use force ... at the risk of worsening the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and compromising ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and lasting peace,” the French presidential office said.
Macron “stressed the need to respect” the cease-fire and “to provide guarantees on the rights and security of the people of Karabakh, in line with international law.”
Azerbaijan’s presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said Baku is “ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs.”
In announcing its military operation Tuesday, Azerbaijan aired a long list of grievances, accusing pro-Armenian forces of attacking its positions, planting land mines and engaging in sabotage.
Even though Aliyev insisted the Azerbaijani army struck only military facilities during the fighting, separatist officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Stepanakert and other areas came under “intense shelling.”
Before the cease-fire, explosions reverberated around Stepanakert every few minutes on Wednesday — some in the distance and others closer to the city. Even after the truce was announced and the shelling could no longer be heard in Stepanakert, many residents decided to stay in shelters for the rest of the day.
Significant damage was visible in the city, with shop windows blown out and vehicles punctured, apparently by shrapnel.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, killing one civilian.