Russia has moved to stop the worst escalation of fighting in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh in more than a quarter of a century by hosting ceasefire talks on Friday.
Vladimir Putin called on Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to suspend the fighting that has raged in the disputed south Caucasus region for almost two weeks. The Kremlin said Putin’s initiative followed a series of calls with the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev.
The latest clashes between the two sides began on 27 September and marked an escalation of the decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The region lies in Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994.
The Kremlin said Putin proposed calling a ceasefire to exchange prisoners and collect the bodies of dead soldiers. On Friday afternoon Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, greeted his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Moscow.
Armenia said it was open to a ceasefire, while Azerbaijan has made a potential truce conditional on the Armenian forces’ withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh, arguing that the failure of international efforts to negotiate a settlement left it with no other choice but to try to reclaim its lands by force.
In a TV address to his nation, Aliyev said nearly three decades of international talks “haven’t yielded an inch of progress. We haven’t been given back an inch of the occupied lands.”
He said: “Mediators and leaders of some international organisations have stated that there is no military solution to the conflict. I have disagreed with the thesis, and I have been right. The conflict is now being settled by military means and political means will come next.”
Azerbaijani officials and Nagorno-Karabakh separatist authorities said heavy shelling continued.
Fighting with heavy artillery, warplanes and drones has engulfed Nagorno-Karabakh despite numerous international calls for a truce. Both sides have accused each other of targeting residential areas and civilian infrastructure.
On Friday a historic cathedral in the town of Shusha came under shelling for a third time, locals said. It was previously hit on Thursday, with one shell piercing its dome and damaging the interior. Further shelling wounded two Russian journalists inspecting the damage. The Azerbaijani military denied targeting the cathedral.
Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been under intense shelling. Residents are staying in shelters, some of which are in the basements of apartment buildings.
Armenian officials allege that Turkey is involved in the conflict and is sending Syrian mercenaries to fight on Azerbaijan’s side. Turkey has publicly backed Azerbaijan in the conflict but has denied sending fighters to the region.