Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other on Saturday of violations of the ceasefire supposed to have entered into force at noon local time (10 a.m. Swiss time), negotiated with Moscow after nearly two weeks of fighting for the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
The deal, however, appears to be relatively respected, with the capital of the Stepanakert region calmer after days of intense fighting. According to an AFP journalist on the spot, the bombardments stopped and the sirens warning of imminent attacks were silent but the streets remained deserted, except for a few residents going out to refuel.
The heads of the Armenian and Azerbaijani diplomacy have agreed, with the Russian mediation, of a ceasefire after negotiations of more than ten hours which ended at dawn Saturday in Moscow. This humanitarian ceasefire should make it possible to exchange prisoners of war and the bodies of victims.
Nagorno Karabakh, a territory mainly populated by Armenians, seceded from Azerbaijan after a war which left 30,000 dead in the 1990s. Baku accuses from Yerevan of occupying its territory, the attacks of violence being regular .
The fighting between the Nagorno Karabakh troops, supported by Yerevan, and the Azerbaijani forces since September 27, have been the deadliest, with more than 450 confirmed dead, including about fifty civilians. But the real toll could be much bigger.
Immediately after the entry into force of the ceasefire, the Armenian Defense Ministry accused the Azerbaijani forces of “launching an attack at 12:05”.
“Armenia is flagrantly violating the ceasefire,” replied the Azerbaijani army. The two sides also accused each other of attacks just before the deal went into effect.
“They hate us”
Stepanakert, regularly bombed in recent days, was again on Saturday morning but in the afternoon the situation was calmer, apart from a few explosions in the distance. Few, however, believed in the chances of a truce.
“We know the Azeris, we can not trust them. They can return their jacket in the blink of an eye. This ceasefire will not last. It is a ploy to gain time”, believes Livon, one of the few taxis circulating in the separatist capital. “Yet both sides need a break,” the man said.
“I lived for almost twenty years in Azerbaijan, these people hate us. We do not believe in a ceasefire, they just want to buy time”, adds Vladimir Barseghian, 64, retired and volunteer mobilized in a uniform workshop.
Many in Azerbaijan even say they are opposed to this truce. In Baku, Sitara Mamedova, a twenty-year-old student, is “disappointed”: “No to the cease-fire! The enemy must leave our lands or be exterminated on our lands”. In Barda, 40 km from the front, Murat Assadov agrees: “We must continue the war and take back our lands”.
According to a senior Azerbaijani official, the calm was only “temporary”: “it is a humanitarian ceasefire to exchange bodies and prisoners, it is not a (real) ceasefire” , he said, saying Baku had “no intention of backing down” in its efforts to regain control of the region.
At the time of the announcement of the truce, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov, however, affirmed that the two camps had committed themselves “to substantial negotiations to quickly reach a peaceful settlement” of the conflict, with the mediation of the three. Co-Chairs (France, Russia, United States) of the OSCE Minsk Group.
These negotiations will have to “resume without preconditions”, insisted the spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Agnès von der Mühll.
On Saturday, Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Russian mediation efforts, according to the Kremlin. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) welcomed the ceasefire and said it was ready to facilitate the exchange of prisoners and bodies.
The cease-fire is “an important first step but will not replace a permanent solution”, for its part indicated the Turkish diplomacy, first support of Baku.
According to her, Azerbaijan has given Armenia “the last chance to withdraw from the territories it occupies” and “showed Armenia and the world that it can take back its lands”.
The fear is to see this conflict internationalize in a region where Russians, Turks, Iranians and Westerners have interests. Especially since Ankara encourages Baku to go on the offensive and Moscow is bound by a military treaty with Yerevan.
Turkey is accused of actively participating in hostilities with Azerbaijan, which it denies. There have been many reports of pro-Turkish fighters from Syria being sent to fight.