June 18, 2024

Azerbaijan claims ‘demilitarisation’ of separatists is ongoing in close cooperation with Russian peacekeepers.

Armenian separatists have begun laying down their weapons, as the first convoy of humanitarian aid entered Nagorno-Karabakh days after a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal ended Azerbaijan’s offensive this week.

“We are in close cooperation with the Russian peacekeepers, conducting the demilitarisation” of the separatists, Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence spokesman Anar Eyvazov told reporters in Shusha on Saturday, a district on the edge of the rebel stronghold of Stepanakert.

“We have already seized weapons and ammunition,” Eyvazov said, adding that its soldiers along with Russian peacekeepers are working jointly to disarm separatist fighters in the Nagorno-Karabakh region – home to more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians. Karabakh is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive on Tuesday on ethnic Armenian rebel positions in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation“. It demanded they lay down their arms and the separatist government disband.

Ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh have told the Reuters new agency that they are essentially besieged in the region, with little food, electricity or fuel, and have called on big powers to help them. Russia has also sent aid.

A Red Cross aid convoy entered Nagorno-Karabkh on Saturday, the first since Azerbaijan’s military operation.

Zara Amatuni, a local ICRC spokesman, told the AFP news agency that about 70 tonnes of mainly humanitarian supplies and food supplies passed through the Lachin Corridor – the single highway connecting Armenia and the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region.

A Reuters witness saw a small ICRC aid convoy approaching Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan but then journalists were ordered to leave the vicinity before the trucks crossed the frontier, the agency said.

Armenians as ‘equal citizens’

Russia deployed several thousand peacekeepers to the region in the wake of a brief but brutal 2020 war in which Azerbaijan reclaimed large parts of the territory and its surroundings from the separatists.

Azerbaijan wants to integrate the long-contested region, but ethnic Armenians have said they feared they will be persecuted and have accused the world of abandoning them.

But Azerbaijan’s foreign minister in his UN General Assembly address on Saturday said his country wants to integrate ethnic Armenians as “equal citizens”.

“I wish to reiterate that Azerbaijan is determined to reintegrate ethnic Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan as equal citizens,” Jeyhun Bayramov said.

He added that Azerbaijan and Armenia have a “historic opportunity” to establish good neighbourly relations and co-exist side by side in peace. It is high time to seize this opportunity.”

Backing the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that time was ripe for trust-building measures between Armenia and Azerbaijan, adding that Moscow’s troops would help that.

In his address at the UN, Lavrov accused the West of trying to force themselves as mediators between the two countries, which he said was not needed.

Vehicles of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Vehicles of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) transporting humanitarian aid for residents of Nagorno-Karabakh drive towards the Armenia-Azerbaijan border [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

US delegation in Armenia

Meanwhile, a US congressional delegation was in Armenia to meet Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and travelled up to the closed border to inspect the blockade with the head of Armenia’s Syunik region.

Senator Gary Peters of Michigan used binoculars to look across the border towards Russian peacekeeper positions, as Azerbaijani trucks could be seen transporting material for a new highway being built as the government secures the region.

“Certainly, people are very fearful of what could be occurring in there, and I think the world needs to know exactly what’s happening,” Peters told reporters at the border.

“We’ve heard from the Azerbaijani government that there’s nothing to see, nothing to worry about. If that’s the case, we should allow international observers in to see for themselves,” he argued.

Anna Ohanyan, a professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, saw the visit by the US delegation in “multiple respects”.

“The situation is very dire in the region and the implications of the massive humanitarian crisis and the militarised ending for this conflict is going to reverberate in South Caucasus,” she said.

“I see the visit by the US delegation as a way for the US to try to reclaim some ability to shape the region.”

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