Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to their first talks on ending the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia said Friday, as fierce clashes over the disputed region showed no signs of abating.
Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed that senior diplomats from the two countries are joining talks in the Russian capital following a late-night appeal on Thursday from President Vladimir Putin.
“Baku and Yerevan have confirmed their participation,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told AFP, adding that preparations were underway.
Armenian and Azerbaijan defence officials said fierce clashes continued overnight Thursday to Friday and reported further civilian deaths after Putin announced the meeting in Moscow and appealed for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds.
Fighting erupted between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan’s army late last month over the disputed region in Azerbaijan that declared independence following a war in the 1990s.
Both sides have dismissed mounting calls to end the fighting that has claimed some 400 lives including dozens of civilians, and Azerbaijan has said it is determined to capture the majority-Armenian province.
The Kremlin said late Thursday that following a series of calls with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Putin was calling for an end to hostilities in Karabakh “in order to exchange dead bodies and prisoners”.
The two countries’ foreign ministers were invited to the Russian capital to broker an end to the hostilities in talks mediated by the Russian foreign ministry, the Kremlin said.
Diplomatic efforts to find a lasting solution to the decades-old stalemate have faltered since a precarious ceasefire was agreed in 1994.
Mounting civilian toll
Putin’s announcement of talks in Moscow came shortly after international mediators from France, Russia and the United States launched their first efforts to resolve the fighting in Geneva.
The countries make up the “Minsk Group” that has sought a solution to the Karabakh conflict since the 1990s but have failed to stop sporadic outbreaks of fighting, including the most deadly clashes in decades this month.
But the negotiations in Geneva went ahead without Armenia, which refused to participate if the fighting was ongoing, and there were no public statements following the closed-door talks.
Since the fighting restarted both sides have accused the other of shelling areas populated by civilians and thousands of people have been displaced by the clashes.
The administrative centre of the disputed region, Stepanakert, is dotted with wide craters and unexploded ordinance following days of intermittent shelling but the city was calm Friday morning, an AFP journalist said.
Armenia accused Azerbaijan on Thursday of shelling the iconic Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral leaving a gaping whole in its roof and several journalists injured.
Armenia’s rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told AFP earlier this week that the renewed fighting has displaced around half of Karabakh’s 140,000 residents and forced some 90 percent of its women and children from their homes.
Dozens of civilians have been confirmed killed and the Armenian side has acknowledged 350 military deaths, while Azerbaijan has not admitted to any fatalities among its troops.
Turkey’s strong backing for Azerbaijan has sown fears in the West that the conflict could spiral into a full-blown war embroiling Ankara with Moscow, which has a military treaty with Armenia.
Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron are among the world leaders to denounce the reported deployment of pro-Turkish fighters from Syria and Libya to Karabakh and Iran this week warned of “terrorists” who had joined the conflict from abroad.