Azerbaijan claims to halt fighting in ethnic enclave but warns Armenia
MOSCOW — Azerbaijan announced Sunday that it had halted combat operations in the sudden, bloody clashes with Armenia over the long-disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it laid the seeds for continued fighting by saying that it would keep the slice of territory seized by its forces.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said on its website that Azerbaijan, taking into account appeals for a cease-fire from various international organizations, “has decided to unilaterally cease retaliatory military actions,” but that it would continue fighting if Armenia did not stop.
It also said that Azerbaijan would “strengthen the defense of the liberated territories.”
If Azerbaijan consolidates its control over strategic heights seized in fighting Saturday around several villages in northeastern Nagorno-Karabakh, it would be the first change in the static armistice line in 22 years.
The heavy fighting that erupted over the weekend left about 30 dead and dozens wounded, according to casualty estimates from both sides. Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has controlled its own affairs with significant military and financial support from Armenia since a separatist war sputtered to a stop in 1994.
Neither Armenia nor the separatist enclave would be likely to find any change in the armistice line acceptable, and both accused Azerbaijan of continuing the fighting in the South Caucasus despite the declared cease-fire.
Reports from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, said volunteers by the hundreds were streaming toward the front.
David K. Babayan, a spokesman for the president of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, posted statements on Twitter claiming that Azerbaijan was saying one thing while doing another.
“Azerbaijani forces continue shelling, trying to intrude into Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory,” he was quoted as saying by the local news media. The territory has about 150,000 people.
Ethnic divisions have long pitted predominantly Christian Armenia against mostly Muslim Azerbaijan, and war between them erupted after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The dispute has continued to simmer since the cease-fire in 1994, with occasional flare-ups.
The Kremlin has presented itself as a mediator between the two, while also selling arms to both. Russia also maintains a small base in Armenia.
Analysts were struggling to understand what caused this particular eruption and whether it indicated the start of a new, violent phase of the war.