Nagorno-Karabakh truce holds but residents leave fearing renewed violence

World Wednesday 06/April/2016 17:11 PM
By: Times News Service
Nagorno-Karabakh truce holds but residents leave fearing renewed violence

Talysh (Azerbaijan): Elmira Bagiryan, a resident of a village at the epicentre of four days of fierce fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces, said on Wednesday the shooting had stopped but she was leaving anyway because she feared it could start again.
The village of Talysh was briefly occupied by Azeri troops during four days of battles over Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region which subsided on Tuesday afternoon when both sides agreed a ceasefire.
Russia said it had played a lead role in brokering a halt to the violence, hosting a previously-undisclosed meeting between military chiefs from ex-Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The fighting was the most intense since a war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, and raised fears of a return to all-out war in a region that serves as a corridor for pipelines taking oil and gas to world markets.
The guns had fallen silent in Talysh, a few kilometres (miles) from the Azeri town of Barda on the northernmost edge of separatist-held territory, on Wednesday afternoon. Ethnic Armenian troops, firmly back in control, milled around, smiling.
There were signs though of the ferocity of the fighting of previous days. Several houses had been destroyed by shell-fire. The hulk of a burned out car lay by the road. Nearby were the carcasses of several dead cows.
Bagiryan, a grey-haired ethnic Armenian in her early 60s, said three village residents had been killed.
Sobbing and close to tears, she said she had spent days and nights in the cellar of a neighbour's house, taking refuge from the shelling.
Quiet had returned on Tuesday when the ceasefire was agreed, but she planned to leave all the same.
"We are afraid that the shooting will begin again," she told Reuters, as she prepared to board a car laden with carpets, pillows, blankets and furniture from her home.
Other residents also were using the lull as an opportunity to get out. On the roads in the area, cars and trucks loaded with belongings were heading away from the front line.
The ex-Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over the mountainous territory in the early 1990s in which thousands were killed on both sides and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The war ended with a truce in 1994, although there have been sporadic flare-ups since. The ceasefire was shattered over the weekend, with Azerbaijan's army and the Armenian-backed separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh exchanging heavy fire using artillery, tanks, rocket systems and helicopters.
Both Azerbaijan's defence ministry, and the Armenian-backed military in Nagorno-Karabakh, said on Wednesday they were observing the ceasefire while their opponents had been violating it.
Updating the death toll from the four days of fighting, a spokesman for the ethnic Armenian armed forces said 29 of its soldiers had been killed, 101 wounded, while another 28 were missing in action.
Azerbaijan's defence ministry has not released total casualty figures, but said 16 of its soldiers had died in the 48 hours before the ceasefire.
Mediating in the conflict has for years been assigned jointly to envoys from France, Russia and the United States. But Moscow has ramped up its diplomatic role in the past few days.
Officials from both sides said the truce was agreed at a meeting in Moscow between the chiefs of staff of the Azeri and Armenian militaries. The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had telephoned the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia to urge them to agree a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were both heading to Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, in the next few days.
Russia does not have the same direct interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as it does in other territorial disputes in the former Soviet Union. In Georgia and Ukraine, it provided direct support to separatists.
However, its active diplomacy over the past few days is consistent with a push by the Kremlin to assert its influence, especially in places where the administration of US President Barack Obama has elected to take a more low-key role.
Even if the ceasefire holds in the short-term, there is still potential for the fighting to flare again.
Anger and frustration are building in Azerbaijan that years of talks have failed to bring Nagorno-Karabakh under its control. The country has used revenues from exports of crude oil to build up its military, leading some Azeris to believe that if there was another war, they could win it.