Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh held their first direct peace talks on Thursday, after Baku claimed to have regained control over the breakaway region in a lightning military operation.
The separatists agreed to lay down their arms on Wednesday as part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire plan that halted Azerbaijan’s 24-hour offensive to retake land at the centre of decades of conflict.
Azerbaijan’s presidency said the two-hour meeting had been “held in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere” in the presence of Russian peacekeepers, and both sides expressed readiness to hold more talks.
Baku’s negotiators presented plans for the “reintegration” of Karabakh’s Armenian population into Azerbaijan and pledged to provide urgently needed fuel, humanitarian supplies, and medical care to residents.
While the meeting was happening, gunfire rang out in the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert, despite the truce deal.
“There was a small exchange of fire outside the city,” Arutyun Gasparyan, a businessman and father of two, told AFP. “We are sitting at home and waiting for the results of the talks.”
The breakaway authorities accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire, but Baku denied the allegation.
Russia’s defence ministry also said it observed “five ceasefire violations” in the areas of Shusha and Mardakert.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the small mountainous region. Now, there are concerns of a fresh refugee crisis as Karabakh’s Armenian population fears being forced out.
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the ceasefire was holding overall and he did not see a “direct threat” to the civilian population.
Nonetheless he said Yerevan was prepared to host 40,000 families from the region, which is estimated to hold up to 120,000 ethnic Armenians.
The European Union said it was ready to provide “urgent humanitarian assistance”, urging Azerbaijan to allow access to the enclave.
Azerbaijani delegation lead by Deputy of the Azerbaijani Parliament Ramin Mammadov (centre) attends talks with Karabakh delegation in the Azerbaijani town of Yevlakh on Thursday. (AFP)