Azerbaijan, Armenian-Backed Separatists Agree Karabakh Cease–Fire
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Azerbaijan and Armenian-backed separatists in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh say they have reached a cease-fire to halt the deadliest flare-up over that mountainous South Caucasus enclave in decades.
The apparent breakthrough comes with increasingly strident international calls for restraint between forces loyal to regional archenemies Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have been locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh since the waning years of the Soviet Union.
A spokesman for the Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh separatist forces, Senor Hasratyan, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 5 that the mutual agreement called for an end to fighting from 12 p.m. local time (0800 GMT).
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry then confirmed that military operations had been stopped along the "line of contact" that effectively serves as a front line separating the combatant sides.
The latest outbreak of violence -- the worst since the mid-1990s -- began early on April 2 and involved tanks, helicopters, and artillery.
In a statement, representatives of the so-called Minsk Group of mediators in the conflict -- France, Russia, and the United States -- urged the sides to stop fighting, saying there is no military solution to the conflict. They also called for "an immediate negotiation" on a comprehensive settlement.
"The negotiations have brought no results, but we are still prepared for the negotiating process," Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said.
Earlier in Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the co-chairs of the Minsk Group -- France, Russia, and the United States -- would send envoys to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and to Nagorno-Karabakh in a bid to resolve the crisis.
Ayrault was speaking after talks with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would send a fact-finding mission to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Populated mainly by ethnic Armenians and with many ethnic Azerbaijanis having already fled, the territory declared independence from Azerbaijan in a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Each side reported new casualties on April 5 as the death toll from four days of fighting rose above 40, with one estimate as high as 64 killed.
Azerbaijan has reported 16 combat deaths, while the Karabakh military said 20 of its servicemen had died.
The Armenian Defense Ministry later announced that seven people were killed in an Azerbaijani drone attack on a bus carrying volunteers to the disputed region.
Azerbaijan also reported civilian deaths, including at least four overnight.
The destruction of heavy military equipment has been claimed by both sides.
Each side accused the other of escalating the violence as the West, Russia, and neighbor Iran appealed to all sides for restraint.
On April 4, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov warned that Baku's forces would begin an artillery barrage on Stepanakert, which has around 50,000 residents, if Armenian forces did "not stop shelling our settlements."
The defense forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic promised a "very painful" response.
They also said Azerbaijan "had been increasing the caliber of its weapons day by day," and had used Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems to shell civilian settlements and military targets.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry on April 5 denied having targeted civilians and a spokesman said that while Baku's forces had Smerches, they hadn't used them "so far."
Baku also said the Armenians were using large-caliber machine guns and 120-millimeter mortars overnight.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian warned on April 4 that a further escalation of the fighting would be fraught with "unpredictable and irreversible consequences, including a full-scale war."
Armenian foe and NATO member Turkey waded in on April 5 to say it was "standing side-by-side with our brothers in Azerbaijan."
"This persecution will not continue forever," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. "Karabakh will one day return to its original owner. It will be Azerbaijan's."
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned what he described as Armenian attacks in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and vowed Ankara would stand by Azerbaijan.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed serious concern over an escalation in the standoff and called for a swift cessation in fighting.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said via Twitter he had told Sarkisian and the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, that "a comprehensive settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh is critical for their stability, security, prosperity."
With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services, AFP, AP, Interfax, and Reuters.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.