YEREVAN, Armenia — Azerbaijan and Armenian forces reached a cease-fire agreement Wednesday to end two days of fighting in the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region that has been a flashpoint for decades, officials on both sides said.
An hour after the truce was announced, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the intensity of the hostilities in the region “has decreased drastically.” Azerbaijani authorities said they had halted the military operation launched a day earlier once separatist officials said they were laying down arms.
Both sides in the conflict agreed to talks Thursday on the “reintegration” of the region into Azerbaijan. That, in addition to guarantees to lay down arms, was widely viewed as a victory for Baku.
On Tuesday, Azerbaijan unleashed heavy artillery fire on Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh — a mountainous a region that is part of Azerbaijan and came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces during a separatist war in the 1990s.
Scores of people were reportedly killed and wounded in the latest fighting. The hostilities also exacerbated an already grim humanitarian situation for residents who have suffered food and medicine shortages for months as Azerbaijan instituted a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
The escalation raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have been locked in a struggle over the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The most recent heavy fighting occurred over six weeks in 2020, when Azerbaijan retook parts of the region and areas around it that were lost in the earlier separatist war.
The conflict has long drawn in powerful regional players, including Russia and Turkey. While Turkey threw its weight behind Azerbaijan, Russia has taken on a mediating role and brokered the armistice that ended the 2020 fighting. Its contingent of peacekeepers, in fact, are charged with monitoring that truce, and both sides said Wednesday that they helped reach the current agreement.
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. It earlier said they were being taken into the contingent’s “base camp,” without clarifying its location.
The deal envisions the withdrawal of Armenian military units and equipment from Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as disarming the local defense forces, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said. Armenia’s Pashinyan said his government didn’t take part in discussing or negotiating the deal, but “has taken note” of the decision made by the region’s separatist authorities.
The concessions made by the separatists indicated the weaker position they and their backers in Armenia have been in recently.
Having lost the war in 2020 and most recently control of the only road linking the country to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia had very little leverage in the breakaway region, Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said in an interview Tuesday. And the separatist forces, which consisted of several thousand men who have been poorly supplied, were “probably not a match for the Azerbaijani forces,” De Waal said.
Meanwhile, both Armenia and Russia appeared to distance themselves from the conflict.
Pashinyan said Russia bore responsibility for ensuring security of Armenians in the region, while Moscow brushed off such claims.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that, in effect, Azerbaijan was acting on its own territory.
“I hope that we can achieve de-escalation and solve this problem via peaceful channels,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said later.
Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said a plan is in place to reintegrate the region’s Armenian population in Azerbaijani society and that Baku is “ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs.”
In announcing what it called an “anti-terrorist operation” operation on Wednesday, Azerbaijan aired a long list of grievances, accusing Armenian forces of attacking its positions in the region, planting land mines and engaging in acts of sabotage.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry denied its weapons or troops were in Nagorno-Karabakh, and its prime minister alleged that Azerbaijan’s main goal is to draw it into hostilities.
Azerbaijan’s forces claimed to be only targeting military sites but ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said that Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway region, and other villages were “under intense shelling” Tuesday.
Before the cease-fire, blasts reverberated around Stepanakert every few minutes on Wednesday morning, with some explosions in the distance and others closer to the city. Even after the truce was announced and the shelling could no longer be heard in Stepanakert, many residents of the city decided to stay in shelters at least till the end of Wednesday.
Significant damage was visible in the city, with shop windows blown out and vehicles punctured, apparently by shrapnel.
Armenia’s ambassador at large Edmon Marukyan posted a photo of crowds gathered at what he said was the Stepanakert airport. It wasn’t clear if they were looking to leave the region, and The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify the photo’s provenance.
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan said Wednesday that 32 people, including seven civilians, were killed and more than 200 others were wounded. He said earlier that one child was among the dead and 11 children were among the wounded.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, killing one civilian.
The claims could not be independently verified.
On Tuesday, thousands of protesters rallied in central Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some clashed with police, who reportedly used stun grenades.
Russia’s state news agencies reported that protesters began gathering there again on Wednesday, shortly after the cease-fire agreement was announced. According to a Tass report, the demonstrators chanted anti-government slogans and demanded Pashinyan’s ouster.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia; Aida Sultanova in London; and Siranush Sargsyan in Stepanakert contributed.