World (AP)

Talks have opened on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan claims full control of the region | AP News

Talks have opened on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan claims full control of the region | AP News

Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijan government are meeting for talks Thursday to discuss the future of the breakaway region Azerbaijan claims to fully control following a military offensive this week.

Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and the Azerbaijan State News Agency say the talks Thursday between regional leaders and the Baku government will focus on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan.

The talks come after local Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to lay down their weapons following the latest outbreak of fighting in the decades-long separatist conflict.

According to the Azerbaijan State News Agency, a delegation from Nagorno-Karabakh, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, arrived for talks in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh which is about 100 km (62 miles) north of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital.

Authorities in the ethnic Armenian region that has run its affairs without international recognition since fighting broke out in the early 1990s declared around midday Wednesday that local self-defense forces will disarm and disband under a Russia-mediated cease-fire.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev trumpeted victory in a televised address to the nation, saying that his country’s military had restored the region’s sovereignty.

On Thursday, Russia’s Ministry of Defense reported that about 5,000 civilians from the region had been evacuated to a camp operated by Russian peacekeepers to avoid the fighting. Many others gathered Wednesday at the airport in Stepanakert, hoping to flee the region.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled an urgent meeting Thursday on the Azerbaijani offensive, at the request of France.

On Tuesday, the Azerbaijan army unleashed an artillery barrage and drone attacks against outnumbered and undersupplied pro-Armenian forces, which have been weakened by a blockade of the region in the southern Caucasus Mountains that is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan said at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting. He said earlier that children were among the dead and wounded. The figures could not immediately be independently verified.

The hostilities worsened an already grim humanitarian situation for residents who have endured food and medicine shortages for months as Azerbaijan enforced a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a speech to the nation that fighting decreased following the truce, emphasizing that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are fully responsible for residents’ security.

Pashinyan, who has previously recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, said Armenia wouldn’t be drawn into the fighting. He said his government didn’t take part in negotiating the deal, but “has taken note” of the decision made by the region’s separatist authorities.

He again denied any Armenian troops were in the region, even though separatist authorities said they were in Nagorno-Karabakh and would pull out as part of the truce.

Protesters rallied in the Armenian capital of Yerevan for a second straight day Wednesday, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about Azerbaijan’s military actions. “We have repeatedly emphasized the use of force is absolutely unacceptable,” he said, adding that the U.S. was closely watching the worsening humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s move to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume between the two neighbors, which have been locked in a struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh since a separatist war there ended in 1994.

During another war that lasted for six weeks in 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed broad swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories that were held for decades by Armenian forces. More than 6,700 people died in the fighting, which ended with a Russian-brokered peace agreement. Moscow deployed about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the region.

The conflict has long drawn in powerful regional players, including Russia and Turkey. While Russia took on a mediating role, Turkey threw its weight behind longtime ally Azerbaijan.

Russia has been Armenia’s main economic partner and ally since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and has a military base in the country.

Pashinyan, however, has been increasingly critical of Moscow’s role, emphasizing its failure to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and arguing that Armenia needs to turn to the West to ensure its security. Moscow, in turn, has expressed dismay about Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Pashinyan on Wednesday, welcoming the deal to end the hostilities and start talks.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said some of its peacekeepers were killed Wednesday, although it didn’t say how many and whether it happened before or after the start of the cease-fire. The ministry said the peacekeeping contingent had evacuated more than 3,100 civilians.

The separatists’ quick capitulation reflected their weakness following the Armenian forces’ defeat in the 2020 war and the loss of the only road linking the region to Armenia.

While many in Armenia blamed Russia for the defeat of the separatists, Moscow pointed to Pashinyan’s own recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.

“Undoubtedly, Karabakh is Azerbaijan’s internal business,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Azerbaijan is acting on its own territory, which was recognized by the leadership of Armenia.”

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Aliyev and “condemned Azerbaijan’s decision to use force … at the risk of worsening the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and compromising ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and lasting peace,” the French presidential office said.

Macron “stressed the need to respect” the cease-fire and “to provide guarantees on the rights and security of the people of Karabakh, in line with international law.”

Azerbaijan’s presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said Baku was “ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs.”

In announcing its military operation Tuesday, Azerbaijan aired a long list of grievances, accusing pro-Armenian forces of attacking its positions, planting land mines and engaging in sabotage.

Even though Aliyev insisted the Azerbaijani army struck only military facilities during the fighting, separatist officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Stepanakert and other areas came under “intense shelling.”

Significant damage was visible in the city, with shop windows blown out and vehicles apparently hit by shrapnel.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, killing one civilian.