YEVLAKH , Azerbaijan, Sept 22, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - A fragile ceasefire held on Friday in Nagorno-Karabakh, after Armenian separatists this week capitulated to Azerbaijan's lightning offensive.
Azerbaijan and the separatists from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh held their first direct peace talks Thursday, after Baku claimed to have regained control over the breakaway region.
The separatists agreed to lay down their arms on Wednesday as part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire plan that halted Azerbaijan's 24-hour offensive to retake land at the centre of decades of conflict.
Azerbaijan's presidency said the two-hour meeting had been "held in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere" in the presence of Russian peacekeepers. Both sides expressed readiness to hold more talks.
Baku's negotiators presented plans for the "reintegration" of Karabakh's Armenian population into Azerbaijan and pledged to provide urgently needed fuel, humanitarian supplies, and medical care to residents.
While the meeting was happening, gunfire rang out in the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert, despite the truce deal.
The breakaway authorities accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire, but Baku denied the allegation.
Russia's defence ministry also said it observed "five ceasefire violations" in the areas of Shusha and Mardakert.
- 'Crime against humanity' -
Hours later, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers clashed during a UN Security Council emergency meeting on the crisis that, according to the separatists, has claimed 200 lives.
"There are no more sides of the conflict, but perpetrators and victims. There is no more conflict, but the real danger of atrocity," said Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan.
"The intensity and cruelty of the offensive makes it clear that the intention is to finalize ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population."
His Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov accused Armenia of disinformation.
"Armenia's attempt to exploit the UN Security Council in its campaign to mislead the international community is deplorable," Bayramov said.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the small mountainous region. Now, there are concerns of a fresh refugee crisis as Karabakh's Armenian population fears being forced out.
Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the ceasefire was holding overall and he did not see a "direct threat" to the civilian population.
The collapse of the separatist resistance represents a major victory for Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, who said his country had restored its sovereignty over the region.
A separatist official said more than 10,000 people had been evacuated from Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
- Putin talks to Aliyev -
Russia -- the traditional regional powerbroker -- sent peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 as part of a deal to end a six-week war in which Azerbaijan regained partial control of the region.
Under this week's truce, the separatists said they had agreed to fully dismantle their army.
After the Soviet Union fell apart, Armenian separatists seized the region -- internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan -- in the early 1990s.
That sparked a war that left 30,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The latest violence comes with Russia bogged down in its war against Ukraine, and after the United States and the EU stepped up attempts to find a lasting peace.
Pashinyan on Thursday condemned "failures" by the Russian peacekeeping mission to avert Azerbaijan's assault.
Six Russian peacekeepers were among those killed, the Azerbaijan prosecutor's office said, five when its forces "mistakenly" identified them as Armenian separatists, and another who died after coming under fire from separatist troops.
The Kremlin said Aliyev had apologised over the deaths.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the question of which country Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to had been "decided" and conditions were in place for an enduring solution.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed "wholehearted support" for its ally, Azerbaijan.
- 'Path is not easy' -
The apparent capitulation of the separatists has sparked jubilation among Azerbaijanis.
But in Armenia, it ratcheted up pressure on Pashinyan, who has faced stinging criticism for making concessions to Azerbaijan.
Thousands of angry citizens rallied outside his offices in Yerevan on Thursday, waving Karabakh flags and holding placards that said: "We must save Karabakh's children from genocide."
"Today is the day of our shame. Nikol stole our homeland," pharmacist Arkady Balayan, 32, told AFP.
Demonstrators blamed Russia, the ally whose help did not arrive, and the EU, which has relied on Azerbaijan for gas supplies since the war in Ukraine.
"Nobody wants to save us, we don't have a strong enough army... We're on our own, everyone has let us down," said lawyer Angela Adamian.
"We're afraid that this means the end of our nation, because we know Azerbaijan won't want to stop here."
Still, Pashinyan said on Thursday that peace with Armenia's arch-rival must be sought.
"This path is not easy," he said. "It goes through internal and external shocks, and we must pursue it."