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POLITICO: Azerbaijan declares victory in lightning Nagorno-Karabakh offensive

20-9-2023 |

Azerbaijan on Wednesday declared victory after a daylong military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, during which Baku pounded the ethnic-Armenian controlled region with artillery fire.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leadership on Wednesday morning agreed to a cease-fire in an effort to prevent further bloodshed as Azerbaijani forces made major advances in the breakaway region.

According to Azerbaijan’s ministry of defense, quoted by state media, the Karabakh Armenian side has agreed to “lay down their weapons, leave their combat positions and military posts and disarm completely. Units of the Armenian armed forces [will] leave the territories of Azerbaijan, illegal Armenian armed groups [will be] dissolved.”

The fragile cease-fire throws into doubt the future for the region’s estimated 100,000 Armenian residents, who have for three decades maintained their autonomy from Azerbaijan, behind a fortified line of bunkers, land mines and trenches. Azerbaijan took back swathes of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh during a war in 2020, triggering a complete exodus of residents from the areas that changed hands.

Azerbaijan insists it will offer the Karabakh Armenians rights and securities if they accept Azerbaijani citizenship, but international observers including the EU have been quick to warn that years of violence combined with fiery racial rhetoric from Baku’s authoritarian government make reconciliation more difficult.

Clips shot by locals in the breakaway region over the past 24 hours, show civilians burning piles of documents, while Russia says its peacekeepers on the ground have “evacuated” more than 2,000 people — giving rise to fears of forced displacement.

In a statement, the government of ethnic-Armenian controlled Nagorno-Karabakh said that Azerbaijan had inflicted casualties and captured strategic locations, despite its own troops fighting to hold the line.

“Regrettably, the defense army has casualties too,” the Karabakh Armenian officials wrote. “While in some parts the enemy succeeded in penetrating into defense army outposts, capturing several heights and strategic road junctions.”

“In the current situation, the international community’s actions in the direction of ending the war and resolving the situation are insufficient. Taking this into consideration, the authorities of the Republic of Artsakh accept the proposal of the Russian peacekeeping contingent’s command regarding a ceasefire,” the Nagorno-Karabakh Presidential Office said.

Previous truce agreements have failed to bring peace to the region, with the Russian peacekeepers unable or unwilling to enforce terms amid near-daily reports of deadly clashes along the line of contact.

Nagorno-Karabakh — which lies inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but has been controlled by its ethnic Armenian population since a war which followed the fall of the Soviet Union — has been fought over by the two countries for decades, with the Azerbaijani government insisting it has the right to suppress “illegal” military units on the territory.

According to Gegham Stepanyan, a human rights ombudsman for the unrecognized Karabakh Armenian state of Artsakh, as of the early hours of Wednesday morning, “there are 35 injured persons among the civilian population: 13 children, 15 women and seven men.”

He added at least 27 people were known to have died, but in the absence of stable communications the numbers could be far higher.

While reports from the front line are sparse, given internet access and telephone signal have been largely cut off, Azerbaijan says its troops have several sites inside territory held until now by Karabakh Armenian forces.

Armenian media reported the historic Amaras monastery, dating from the fourth century, has come under Azerbaijani control, raising fears for its survival given Azerbaijan has previously been accused of leveling hundreds of Armenian churches.

Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said the escalation marks “a new war in Karabakh” and “a terrible day for Western diplomacy” given the failure of efforts to convince Azerbaijan not to use force to resolve the conflict.

“It has the potential to get a whole lot worse,” he added.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has called “for the immediate cessation of hostilities and for Azerbaijan to stop the current military activities.” The U.S. State Department said Washington is “pressing for an immediate end to hostilities” and, amid concerns the war could spill out of Nagorno-Karabakh, “reaffirmed U.S. support for Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.”