STEPANAKERT, Azerbaijan, Oct 10, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – Armenia and Azerbaijan traded accusations of new attacks on Saturday in breach of a ceasefire deal to end nearly two weeks of heavy fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The two sides agreed to implement the ceasefire from noon (0800 GMT) Saturday, after 11 hours of talks in Moscow, but it took only minutes after the deadline for their forces to claim new attacks.
An ethnic Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan, Karabakh broke from the country’s control in a war in the 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.
Its separatist government is strongly backed by Armenia, which like Azerbaijan gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and Baku accuses Yerevan of occupying the region.
The heaviest clashes since the war erupted on September 27, with more than 450 people reported dead, thousands forced to flee their homes and fears the fighting could escalate into a devastating all-out conflict.
Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said that “in disregard of the previously declared humanitarian ceasefire” Azerbaijani forces had launched an attack on the frontline at 12:05 pm.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Armenian forces had also carried out attacks on the frontline and were shelling two populated areas.
“Armenia is blatantly violating the ceasefire regime,” the ministry said in a statement.
The two sides also accused each other of attacks just before the ceasefire deadline.
– ‘These people hate us’ –
Karabakh’s ombudsman Artak Beglaryan said missiles had been fired at the region’s main city Stepanakert while Azerbaijan said at least five populated districts were under heavy shelling.
An AFP journalist in Stepanakert reported hearing blasts in the city before the ceasefire took effect, but it was calmer after noon, with isolated explosions in the distance.
Some residents were venturing out of their homes after days of taking shelter from shelling, rocket fire and drone attacks, but there was little hope the ceasefire would take hold for long.
“I lived for nearly 20 years in Azerbaijan, these people hate us,” Vladimir Barseghyan, 64, told AFP in a workshop making uniforms for fighters at the front. “We don’t believe in a ceasefire, they just want to gain some time.”
In Barda, an Azerbaijani town about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the conflict zone, many residents who spoke to AFP were against the ceasefire and in favour of Baku pressing on with its campaign to restore its control of Karabakh.
“We don’t want a ceasefire. They should leave our lands,” said Zemfira Mammadova, a 71-year-old retiree.
“They should get out, and let our people live a normal life. We have nothing to do with them and they should stay away from us.”
The ceasefire deal had been announced after talks between the two countries’ top diplomats mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
He said the truce had been agreed “on humanitarian grounds” and would allow for exchanges of prisoners and bodies.
– Call for ‘substantive negotiations’ –
Lavrov also said that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to “substantive negotiations” on resolving the dispute over Karabakh, with France, Russia and the United States continuing as longtime mediators.
France on Saturday called for the ceasefire to be strictly respected “in order to create the conditions for a permanent cessation of hostilities.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin also spoke with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, about Moscow’s mediation efforts, the Kremlin said.
Karabakh’s declaration of independence has not been recognised by any country — even Armenia — and the international community regards it as part of Azerbaijan.
The return of fighting has stoked fears of a full-blown war embroiling Turkey, which strongly backs Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military treaty with Armenia.
Turkey said Saturday that the ceasefire agreement was an important first step but that Armenia had a “last chance” to withdraw from Karabakh.
Since the conflict restarted both sides have accused the other of shelling areas populated by civilians and thousands of people have been displaced by the clashes.
Stepanakert is dotted with damaged buildings and unexploded ordnance following days of shelling. AFP journalists have also witnessed destruction in villages in Azerbaijan near the front line.
More than 50 civilians have been confirmed killed on both sides and the Armenians have acknowledged over 400 military deaths, while Azerbaijan has not admitted to any fatalities among its troops.