Stepanakert, the regional capital of Nagorny Karabakh under Armenian separatist control, was bombarded on Saturday evening, despite a negotiated ceasefire in Moscow, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of violate.
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Seven heavy explosions were heard around 11:30 p.m. local time, shaking the ground throughout the city. Immediately after this salvo, the warning sirens sounded for several minutes to call on the inhabitants to take refuge in the cellars and shelters.
Silence then fell over the city, plunged into the most complete darkness.
These bombings come despite the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan which theoretically came into effect at midday, and negotiated under the auspices of Russia after two weeks of intense fighting for the separatist region of Nagorno Karabakh .
The belligerents were already accusing each other on Saturday during the day of having violated this truce on the front lines, but the situation had remained unusually calm today in Stepanakert, subjected to regular bombardments for two weeks, in particular heavy rocket fire.
The heads of the Armenian and Azerbaijani diplomacy have agreed, under Russian mediation, of a ceasefire after negotiations of more than ten hours ended at dawn Saturday in Moscow. This cease-fire should make it possible to exchange prisoners of war and the bodies of victims.
“The parties reaffirmed their attachment to the ceasefire agreement,” Moscow insisted in a statement in the evening, adding that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke on the phone with his two counterparts.
Nagorno Karabakh, a territory mainly populated by Armenians, seceded from Azerbaijan after a war that left 30,000 dead in the 1990s. Baku accuses Yerevan of occupying its territory, and the attacks of violence are regular .
The battles between Nagorno Karabakh troops, supported by Yerevan, and Azerbaijani forces since September 27, have been the deadliest with more than 450 confirmed deaths, including about fifty civilians, a toll that could actually be much heavier.
Immediately after the entry into force of the ceasefire, the Armenian Ministry of Defense however accused the Azerbaijani forces of having “launched an attack at 12:05”.
“Armenia is flagrantly violating the ceasefire,” replied the Azerbaijani army, later accusing the Armenian forces of having launched an offensive, repulsed.
Stepanakert had been shelled again on Saturday morning, but the situation remained calm afterwards, apart from a few explosions in the distance. Few, however, believed in the chances of a truce.
“We know the Azeris, we can’t trust them. They can return their jacket in the blink of an eye. This ceasefire will not last. It’s a ploy to save time, ”said Levon, one of the few taxis circulating in the separatist capital.
“I have lived for almost twenty years in Azerbaijan, these people hate us. We do not believe in a ceasefire, they just want to save time, ”added Vladimir Barseghian, 64, retired and volunteer mobilized in a uniform workshop.
Many in Azerbaijan even said they were opposed to this truce. In Baku, Sitara Mamedova, a twenty-year-old student, is “disappointed”: “No to the cease-fire! The enemy must leave our lands or be exterminated on our lands ”.
In Barda, 40 kilometers from the front, Murat Assadov agrees: “We must continue the war and take back our lands”.
According to a senior Azerbaijani official, the calm was only “temporary”: “it is a humanitarian ceasefire to exchange bodies and prisoners, it is not a (real) ceasefire” , he indicated, affirming that Baku did not intend to retreat.
When the truce was announced, Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov had affirmed that the two camps had committed themselves “to substantial negotiations to quickly reach a peaceful settlement” of the conflict, with the mediation of the three co-presidents (France, Russia, United States) of the OSCE Minsk Group.
These negotiations will have to “resume without preconditions”, insisted the spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Agnès von der Mühll.
On Saturday, Vladimir Putin spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Russian mediation efforts, according to the Kremlin.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) welcomed the ceasefire and said it was ready to participate in the exchange of prisoners and bodies.
The cease-fire is “an important first step, but will not replace a permanent solution”, for its part indicated Turkish diplomacy, Baku’s main support.
The fear is to see this conflict internationalize, Ankara encouraging Baku to the offensive and Moscow being bound by a military treaty with Yerevan.
Turkey is further accused of sending pro-Turkish fighters from Syria to fight alongside Azerbaijanis, which Baku denies.