Karabakh rebels negotiate withdrawing their forces
KORNIDZOR, Armenia, Sept 23, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Nagorno-Karabakh separatists were expected to lay down their arms Saturday under an agreement reached with the Azerbaijan government following its lightning offensive.
Moscow confirmed that the rebels had surrendered the first weapons on Friday and the process is expected to continue through the weekend, with the help of Russian peacekeepers.
Germany meanwhile called for the rights of the residents of the mountainous region to be guaranteed, as concern grew in the international community over the plight of civilians there.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been at the centre of more than three decades of conflict between Caucasus rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union collapsed.
The fighting has been marked by abuses on both sides and there are fears of a new refugee crisis.
This week's lightning offensive by Azerbaijani forces left tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians cut off from electricity and other basics in the disputed enclave.
A spokeswoman for the breakaway region said Friday that fearful civilians in the main city Stepanakert were hiding in their basements, with Azerbaijan's forces camped on the outskirts.
The situation there was "horrible", said Armine Hayrapetyan.
An AFP reporter in the separatist stronghold said food, water, medicine and fuel for the panicked population were scarce and displaced people had arrived in the city from surrounding villages.
International pressure has mounted on Azerbaijan to re-open the only road leading to Armenia, dubbed the Lachin Corridor, so supplies and people can move in and out.
- Concern for civilians -
The separatists have said they are in Russian-mediated talks with Baku to organise the withdrawal process and the return of civilians displaced by the fighting.
They say they are discussing how citizens' access to and from Nagorno-Karabakh, where up to 120,000 ethnic Armenians live, will work.
Groups including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Action Against Hunger have expressed concern for the plight of the population in Karabakh.
And on Friday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz intervened following a telephone conversation with Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
"For a sustainable resolution to the conflict, the rights and security of the population in Karabakh must be guaranteed," his spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said in a statement.
Ahead of the latest flare-up, Azerbaijan had imposed a de facto nine-month blockade, piling pressure on the region.
Baku said it had started sending in urgently needed aid on Friday as it seeks to cement its grip over the region it lost control of in a war in the 1990s.
- Pashinyan under pressure -
Pashinyan said the "situation remains tense" in the disputed territory despite a Russian-brokered truce largely sticking.
"There is a hope for some positive dynamics," he told a cabinet meeting Friday.
While the surrender of the separatists, after an offensive they said left 200 dead, has sparked jubilation among Azerbaijanis, it has put Pashinyan under increasing pressure.
He has faced stinging criticism for making concessions to Azerbaijan since losing swathes of territory in a six-week war in 2020.
Police said 98 people were arrested as anti-government demonstrators blocked streets in Yerevan on Friday, a third day of protests over the prime minister's handling of the crisis.
Pashinyan himself has blamed peacekeepers from traditional regional power broker Russia -- stationed around Karabakh since 2020 -- for failing to avert Azerbaijan's offensive.
Six Russian peacekeepers were among those killed in the violence, the Azerbaijan prosecutor's office said.
Moscow is currently bogged down with its war on Ukraine, but has still played a central role in mediating the ceasefire and peace talks.