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Azerbaijan says it has retaken breakaway Armenian enclave after separatists surrender

Azerbaijan said it had taken back the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after launching a lightning 24-hour assault that forced ethnic Armenian forces to surrender and agree to a Russia-brokered ceasefire.

Under the agreement, Azerbaijan said it would halt its military offensive – which killed at least 200 people and injured many more – and said it would hold talks with Karabakh officials “to discuss reintegration.”

The first round of talks took place Thursday, Azerbaijani state media reported, with Karabakh representatives meeting a delegation from Azerbaijan. Few details have been released on the meeting, which was also attended by a representative of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the region.

In a speech to the nation Wednesday evening, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said his forces had “punished the enemy properly” and that Baku had restored its sovereignty “with an iron fist.”

Russia’s peacekeeping force said it had begun to evacuate civilians from Nagorno-Karabakh, but there are fears that Azerbaijan’s reclaiming of the region could create tens of thousands of refugees and Armenia’s government has repeatedly warned of the risk of ethnic cleansing.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the Caucasus Mountains that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is home to around 120,000 ethnic Armenians, who make up the majority of the population and reject Azerbaijani rule. The region has its own de facto government that is backed by Armenia, but is not officially recognized by Armenia or any other country.

The ceasefire began at 1 p.m. local time (5 a.m. ET) Wednesday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s presidential office announced. It said its army had been outnumbered “several times over” by Azerbaijani forces and had no choice but to surrender and agree to “the dissolution and complete disarmament of its armed forces.”

After the ceasefire was announced, local media reported that thousands of Karabakh residents rushed to the airport in the region’s capital Stepanakert, where Russian peacekeepers had established a base. Local officials urged residents to “remain in bomb shelters,” amid fears that Azerbaijani troops could breach the ceasefire.

Evacuation efforts have been complicated by the ongoing blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, after Azerbaijan-backed forces established a military checkpoint along the Lachin corridor – the only road connecting the enclave to Armenia – in December 2022. For the past nine months, imports of food, medicine and fuel to the region have been cut off, prompting Western officials to warn that genocide was being committed against the Armenian population.

Tuesday’s offensive, while brief, will likely have more substantial consequences than the most recent war for control of the region in 2020. During that conflict, Azerbaijan won a crushing victory in 44 days, reclaiming about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh before Russia, historically the dominant power in the region, brokered a ceasefire which saw both sides lay down their weapons.

But, having exposed Armenia’s military inferiority in that war, Azerbaijan has since sought to press home its advantage. Wednesday’s ceasefire handed Azerbaijan a far more comprehensive victory than the 2020 agreement, and the terms of the truce mean returning the whole of the region to Baku’s control.

“Let those who cannot digest our successes remember: the iron fist is in place. And let them not forget: Karabakh is Azerbaijan!” said a triumphant Aliyev in a televised address Wednesday night.

Russia’s influence

Under the 2020 ceasefire, Russia deployed around 2,000 peacekeepers to the region to prevent a new conflict. But Armenian officials have grown frustrated by what it sees as the ineffectiveness of Russia’s contingent, which was laid bare on Tuesday.

Armenia’s Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoruyan accused Russian peacekeepers of failing to protect Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijani aggression, according to state media Armenpress.

The Kremlin rejected Armenia’s criticisms of the Russian peacekeeping contingent. “Such accusations against us are unfounded,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.

Russia’s defense ministry said Wednesday that an unspecified number of peacekeepers were killed when their car came under fire. It gave no further details of the incident, but said that Russian and Azerbaijani representatives would investigate.

In an earlier statement, the ministry said its peacekeepers were in contact with both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials and had discussed “prevention of bloodshed, compliance with humanitarian law in relation to civilians,” as well as the safety of its own forces.

Azerbaijan’s offensive came amid a sharp deterioration in the relationship between historic allies Armenia and Russia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said it was “strange and perplexing” that his government did not receive “any information from our partners in Russia about that operation.”

Armenia has for decades trusted Russia to act as its sole security guarantor, which Russia purports to provide under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of post-Soviet states that includes Armenia but excludes Azerbaijan.

After Azerbaijan’s offensive, a number of prominent Russian commentators and politicians were highly critical of Armenia’s leadership, at times mocking it for its inability to protect ethnic Armenians beyond its borders.

The Kremlin confirmed Wednesday that Moscow was arranging a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. He said a conversation with the Azerbaijani president could also take place if necessary.

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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