YEREVAN – Armenia and Azerbaijan on Monday accused each other of violating a new cease-fire announced the day before in a bid to halt the fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh that has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, in just four weeks.
The truce that took effect Monday morning was agreed upon on Sunday after talks facilitated by the United States. It was a third attempt to establish a lasting cease-fire in the flare-up of a decades-old conflict and, just like the previous two, it was immediately challenged by claims of violation from both sides.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry alleged that Armenian forces fired at Azerbaijani settlements and the positions of the Azerbaijani army “along the entire front, as well as on the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border." Azerbaijan also accused Armenian forces of targeting its town of Terter and the Aghjabedi region.
Armenian military officials in turn accused Azerbaijani forces of shelling the northeastern area of Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas. By Monday afternoon, “heavy battles” were taking place in the southeast of the region, Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Ovannisian said.
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh also charged that Azerbaijan “continued missile strikes" on the region's civilian settlements, killing one and wounding two more.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan insisted they complied with the cease-fire and blamed each other for breaching it.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. The latest fighting that began Sept. 27 has involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones, in the largest escalation of hostilities over the separatist region in more than a quarter-century.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 974 of their troops and over 30 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t disclosed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed 65 civilians and wounded 300.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that according to Moscow’s information, the death toll from the fighting was nearing 5,000, significantly higher than what both sides report.
The new cease-fire deal brokered by the U.S. came out of “intensive negotiations” Washington facilitated over the weekend among the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan and co-chairs of the Minsk Group, set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the 1990s to mediate the conflict.
The co-chairs of the group on Sunday announced another meeting with the two foreign ministers in Geneva on Thursday “to discuss, reach agreement on, and begin implementation ... of all steps necessary to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said that to end hostilities Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. He repeatedly criticized the Minsk Group for not yielding any progress and insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to reclaim its territory by force since international mediators have failed.
In an address to the nation on Monday, Aliyev once again took aim at the Minsk Group.
“For almost 30 years, co-chairs of the Minsk Group have been trying to reconcile Azerbaijan with the process of freezing the conflict,” Aliyev said. “We're fed up with these negotiations. How long can you negotiate for?”
The president said he wants the Thursday meeting “to be worthwhile,” and that it needs to “speed up the resolution of the conflict.”
“So many pointless meetings have already been held in these 28 years,” Aliyev said.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, in turn, accused Azerbaijan of not willing to compromise. “This is the main problem, which until now didn't allow (us) to resolve the issue, because Azerbaijan wasn't ready - and still isn't — for compromises,” Pashinian said in a video statement.
Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.