A week after a first cease-fire, concluded but never respected, between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, a new “humanitarian truce” entered into force on Saturday at midnight local time, but Yerevan and Baku accuse each other of having violated it immediately.
“The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan have agreed on a humanitarian truce from October 18 at 00:00 local time”the Armenian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday evening. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry confirmed, in an identical statement.
But only hours later, Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan claimed on Twitter: “The enemy fired northbound artillery fire between 12:04 am and 2:45 am and launched rockets south between 2:20 am and 2:45 am”.
In turn, Azerbaijan on Sunday accused the Armenian army of violating the new ceasefire.
“Despite the announced truce, the Armenian armed forces blatantly violated the new agreement”, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said in a statement, denouncing enemy artillery fire and attacks along the front line.
The resumption of fighting three weeks ago left hundreds of people dead. After a first failed ceasefire attempt under the aegis of Moscow, the conflict escalated again on Saturday.
Azerbaijan has sworn to “revenge” the death of thirteen civilians, including children, having perished the previous night in a night bombardment of Gandja, the country’s second largest city. Many houses were destroyed by shelling around 3 a.m. local time which also left more than 45 injured, according to the attorney general.
The announcement of the truce comes as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the phone in the evening with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts and insisted on “the need for strict compliance” of the cease-fire concluded last Saturday in Moscow, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
French President Emmanuel Macron has on his side “greeted” Saturday evening the humanitarian truce, adding that it had been concluded “at the end of a French mediation conducted over the last days and hours in coordination with the co-presidents of the Minsk group (the United States and Russia, editor’s note)“.
On Saturday in Gandja, dozens of rescuers searched for survivors with their bare hands and gathered shredded human remains in black body bags.
“We will take revenge on the battlefield”, proclaimed Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev in a speech, calling his enemy separatist and his godfather, Armenia, in turn as “dogs” and of “fascists”.
Turkey, for its part, accused Armenia of “war crimes”, while the EU has “deplored” those strikes, calling once again “all parties to stop targeting civilians”.
Gandja, a city of about 300,000 inhabitants, has been struck several times since the start of the conflict.
The Armenian separatists had noted Saturday for their part that Gandja shelters “legitimate targets” : air base, headquarters of a motorized brigade, special forces, Azerbaijani defense operations center, fuel depots and munitions factories.
They also accused Azerbaijan of having attacked civilian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh during the night, requiring a response.
A few hours before the strikes on Gandja, shots had targeted the city of Stepanakert that the Armenian separatists consider their capital. Stepanakert is the Armenian name of the city, Azerbaijanis call it Khankendi.
Azerbaijan has achieved territorial gains over the past three weeks without winning a decisive battle. Baku has so far not revealed the cost of the conflict, releasing no military, material or human toll.
The separatists claim to have killed thousands of men, admit having had to retreat but assure “control the situation”. Officially, they lost around 700 men, and half of the 140,000 inhabitants were displaced.
Besides a potential humanitarian crisis, the international community fears an internationalization of the conflict, Turkey supporting Azerbaijan. Armenia, which financially and militarily supports the separatists, is in a military alliance with Russia.
Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly populated by Christian Armenians, seceded from Azerbaijan, a Turkish-speaking Shia Muslim, shortly before the breakup of the USSR in 1991, leading to a war that left 30,000 dead. A ceasefire, punctuated by clashes, had been in effect since 1994.