Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh

Moscow (AFP) Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed, with Russian mediation, to a ceasefire in Nagorno Karabakh starting at noon on Saturday after two weeks of intense fighting that marked the worst outbreak of hostilities in the breakaway region in a quarter of a century.

The foreign ministers of the two countries said in a statement that the truce aims to exchange prisoners and restore the dead, adding that specific details will be agreed upon at a later time.

The announcement came after 10 hours of talks in Moscow under the auspices of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who read the statement. It stipulated that the ceasefire should pave the way for talks to settle the conflict.

If the truce continues, it will constitute a major diplomatic coup for Russia, which has a security agreement with Armenia, but has also established warm relations with Azerbaijan.

The latest fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces began on September 27 and left hundreds of deaths in the largest escalation of the decades-long conflict around Nagorno Karabakh since the separatist war there ended in 1994. The region is located in Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.

The talks took place between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who brokered a ceasefire in a series of contacts with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Armenia said it is open to a ceasefire, while Azerbaijan had previously made a possible truce conditional on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno Karabakh, arguing that the failure of international efforts to negotiate a political settlement left it with no other choice but to resort to force.

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Russia has co-sponsored peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh with the United States and France as co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group, which operates under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In his address to the nation on Friday hours before the ceasefire agreement was reached, the Azerbaijani president insisted on his country’s right to take back its territory by force after nearly three decades of international talks that “did not result in an inch of progress.”

“Mediators and leaders of some international organizations said that there is no military solution to the conflict,” Aliyev said. “I disagreed with the thesis, and I was right. The conflict is now settled by military means, and political means will follow after that.”

The current escalation marks the first time that Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey has come to prominence in the conflict, providing strong political support. Over the past few years, Turkey has supplied Azerbaijan with the latest weapons, including drones and missile systems that have helped the Azerbaijani army outpace separatist forces in Nagorno Karabakh in recent fighting.

Armenian officials say Turkey is involved in the conflict and is sending Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside Azerbaijan. Turkey denied deploying fighters in the area, but a Syrian war monitor and three Syrian-based opposition activists confirmed that Turkey has sent hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters to fight in Nagorno Karabakh.

In an interview with CNN Arabia aired on Thursday, the Azerbaijani president admitted that Turkish F-16 fighter jets remained in Azerbaijan weeks after a joint military exercise, but insisted they had remained on the ground. Armenian officials had previously claimed that a Turkish F-16 had shot down an Armenian warplane, a claim both Turkey and Azerbaijan denied.

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Turkey’s involvement in the conflict stirred painful memories in Armenia, where an estimated 1.5 million people were killed in massacres, deportations and forced marches that began in 1915 as Ottoman officials were concerned that Armenian Christians would side with Russia, its enemy in World War I.

Historians widely regard the event as a genocide. Turkey denies the deaths amounted to genocide, saying that the death toll is exaggerated and that the dead were victims of civil war and unrest.

Turkey’s prominent position in the conflict has been a source of concern for Russia, which has a military base in Armenia. The two countries are bound by a security treaty that obliges Moscow to provide support to its ally if it is exposed to aggression.

At the same time, Russia has sought to maintain strong economic and political ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan and ward off Turkey’s attempt to increase its influence in the South Caucasus without spoiling its delicate relations with Ankara.

Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan negotiated a series of deals to coordinate their conflicting interests in Syria and Libya and expand their economic ties. Last year, Turkey, a NATO member, received Russian S-400 air defense missiles, a move that angered Washington.

The Nagorno Karabakh ceasefire will allow the Kremlin to halt Turkey’s attempt to expand its influence in Russia’s backyard without damaging its strategic relationship with Ankara.

While Turkey was looking to join the Minsk Group talks as co-chair, the statement issued by Armenia and Azerbaijan included their pledge to maintain the current format of the peace talks.

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