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Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian separatists agree to halt fighting in disputed enclave

Children take shelter during shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Azerbaijan forces fired artillery at Armenian positions in the breakaway enclave.
Siranush Sargsyan
/
AP
Children take shelter during shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Azerbaijan forces fired artillery at Armenian positions in the breakaway enclave.

Updated September 20, 2023 at 3:52 PM ET

A cease-fire has been reached in the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, where ethnic Armenian forces have been fighting Azerbaijan's military since Tuesday. The Russian Ministry of Defense says it brokered the deal.

Russia installed a contingent of up to 2,000 peacekeepers in 2020 after Moscow negotiated an end to the most recent large-scale hostilities between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijan. The Russian force did not appear to intervene this week to block Azerbaijan's military offensive. Armenia is one of Russia's oldest allies.

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The separatists' self-styled foreign affairs ministry said that after "a lack of concrete actions" by international parties, the enclave was left with few options to ensure the safety of its civilian population during what Azerbaijan has described as an "anti-terrorist" operation.

Separatist leaders, who operate their own government as the "Artsakh Republic," have reportedly urged people in the territory not to panic.

Since the offensive began, at least 200 people have been reported killed in Nagorno-Karabakh, with more than 400 wounded, according to officials of the self-declared Armenia government.

The Russian peacekeepers' base camp, which includes a medical unit, is hosting 2,261 civilians, including 1,049 children, as of Wednesday, according to the Russian military.

Azerbaijan has insisted on total surrender

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The apparent break in the conflict comes one day after Azerbaijan launched a large military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh — which led the U.S. to call on Azerbaijan's leaders in Baku, the capital, "to cease these actions immediately.

Rather than stand down its military, Azerbaijan's government vowed to continue fighting until ethnic Armenian forces agreed to a total surrender. Since the offensive began, at least 200 people have been reported killed in Nagorno-Karabakh, with more than 400 wounded, in what Azerbaijan has described as an "anti-terrorist" operation.

The new clashes erupted after signs of apparent progress: Western-backed peace talks earlier this year led Yerevan to declare Armenia was ready to formally recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as belonging to Azerbaijan — as long as security guarantees were made to ethnic Armenians there.

But on the other hand, Baku leveraged a partial blockade of humanitarian goods, growing military superiority and Russia's preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to dictate the terms of negotiations.

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Under the new cease-fire, Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist government promised to disperse army units and hand over military hardware ahead of "reintegration talks."

News of the halt in fighting follows large protests in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, calling on the government to intervene on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh's majority ethnic Armenian population.

For its part, Baku had said its large offensive was needed to "disarm and remove" Armenian forces illegally operating inside the enclave and protect ethnic Azeris living in the majority Armenian region.

The Armenian military has repeatedly denied such claims, insisting that none of its military units or equipment are in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have repeatedly clashed over the enclave

The South Caucasus rivals have fought two wars over the disputed territory, most recently in 2020. Azerbaijan's latest offensive resurrected concerns of a wider regional conflict with neighboring Armenia.

Here's how Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described the dynamic to NPR's Morning Edition last year, during another flareup of violence:

"Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnically Armenian enclave that is officially part of Azerbaijan. It tried to break away from Azerbaijan in the late Soviet era. That led to the first war. Armenia won the first war. It had control over the Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding regions of Azerbaijan.

"The renewed war ... in 2020 reversed that scenario. Azerbaijan won it. And what we're seeing now is — whereas in the sort of past 30 years, the fighting has been over this disputed territory — now we see the fighting occurring right directly on the ... international state border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. And so the risks of a direct state-to-state conflict are rising."

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NPR
Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.
Charles Maynes