The ethnic Armenian leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh has demanded security guarantees before separatist fighters can give up their weapons, warning of a potential “genocide” by Azeri forces in the disputed region.
David Babayan, adviser to the president of the so-called Republic of Artsakh, said the approximately 120,000 ethnic Armenians that populate the region could not be left to die, so security guarantees were needed.
“At any moment they could destroy us, engage in genocide against us,” he warned.
Armenian authorities in the exclave had agreed to a ceasefire deal in principle with Azerbaijan following its lightning offensive, but key details of the deal still need to be worked out, Mr Babayan said on Thursday.
Mr Babayan, adviser to president Samvel Shahramanyan, told Reuters: “There has not been a final agreement yet.”
“A whole host of questions still need to be resolved,” he added following talks between the two sides in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.
Mr Babayan’s remarks came amid mounting fears over further bloodshed in the breakaway region, where eyewitnesses reported gunfire in the capital of Stepanakert, as it is known to Armenians, on Thursday morning and claimed Azeri forces were advancing.
Videos posted from the city, called Khankendi by Azerbaijan, appeared to show people desperately running for cover as shots were fired in the background. It was not clear who was responsible for the gunfire.
Azerbaijan, which claims the territory as its own, dismissed the reports as “completely false”.
Meanwhile, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, said peace was vital to guarantee his country’s survival in an address to the nation on Thursday.
His comments came a day after Azerbaijan announced it had brought Nagorno-Karabakh back under its control after decades of conflict.
‘Untold physical suffering’
Mr Pashinyan admitted Armenians were “suffering untold physical and psychological suffering” but said his country ultimately needed “an environment that is free from conflicts”.
“Peace is a factor that ensures and guarantees security as well as independence and sovereignty,” he said in the speech, which was delivered on Armenia’s independence day and did not mention Nagorno-Karabakh directly.
“(Armenia) must take this path for the sake of independence, for the sake of statehood, for the sake of the future.”
Mr Pashinyan, who has led Armenia since a peaceful revolution in 2018, has been accused by critics of being too soft on Azerbaijan and allowing it to subjugate Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian officials say at least 32 people have been killed amid intense shelling in the region, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed.
However, a separatist Armenian human rights official in Nagorno-Karabakh has put the death toll at more than 200 people, including 10 civilians. The Telegraph was unable to verify any of the figures provided.
An undisclosed number of Russian peace-keepers were killed in a car ambush on Wednesday, after they were deployed to the region following a war in 2020.
Russia’s defence ministry confirmed the deaths late on Wednesday, saying a contingent of troops had come under fire.
Moscow did not disclose any further details concerning the attack, but veteran organisations in Russia’s north-west on Thursday issued a message of condolence for Ivan Kovgan, the deputy commander of Russia’s peacekeeping mission, saying that he had been killed in the incident.
‘Culprits will be held accountable’
Ilkham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, told Russian leader Vladimir Putin his country would “conduct a thorough investigation” into the incident and promised that “all culprits will be held accountable,” the Kremlin said on Thursday.
Mr Aliyev also offered to pay compensation to the families of the soldiers killed, it added.
Later on Thursday, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited a Russian defence official as saying that Azeri authorities had arrested an unnamed commander of an Azeri unit that was operating in the area.
There was no immediate comment from Baku on those reports.
Many in Armenia, a traditional ally of Russia, have directed their criticism at Moscow over the latest bout of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, accusing the Kremlin of failing to uphold its peace-keeping mandate.
In an apparent bid to deflect the accusations, Putin raised the issue of “guaranteeing the rights and safety of Karabakh’s Armenian population” during his call with Azerbaijan’s leader on Thursday.
Meanwhile, in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Kabul in 2021, thousands of people in the region rushed to its airport in an attempt to flee from Azerbaijani forces and a feared ethnic cleansing campaign.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Thursday that more than 1,340 civilians had been granted shelter from its peacekeepers.
But Vladimir Putin’s spokesman sought to play down fears of potential reprisals against local Armenians.
Dmitry Peskov told Russian state media: “We have no reasons so far to talk about ethnic cleansing, and this is what direct bilateral contacts are for, and we have conveyed our concern (to Baku).
“We are convinced that the security and rights of Karabakh’s Armenian population should be protected,” he added.
Many local residents fled the area following the 2020 six-week war, fearing reprisals from Azerbaijan.