Children are in a shelter during shelling in Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Siranush Sargsyan)
YEREVAN, Armenia — A cease-fire agreement with Azerbaijan was reached on Wednesday to end two days of fighting in the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region, local authorities and Azerbaijani officials said.
The agreement was to go into effect at 1 p.m. local time (0900 GMT), and talks between Azerbaijani officials and the breakaway region’s ethnic Armenian authorities on its “re-integration” into Azerbaijan were scheduled to take place on Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.
The deal was reached through negotiations with the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the region, local officials said. It envisions the withdrawal of Armenian military units and equipment from Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as disarming the local defense forces, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry confirmed.
It comes a day after Azerbaijan launched military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh and used heavy artillery fire on Armenian positions there, an attack that local officials said killed or wounded scores of people.
Azerbaijan has called the artillery fire an “anti-terrorist operation” and said it will continue until the separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh dismantles itself and “illegal Armenian military formations” surrender.
It claimed to be only targeting military sites but significant damage is visible on the streets of the regional capital, Stepanakert, with shop windows blown out and vehicles punctured, apparently by shrapnel.
The blasts reverberated around Stepanakert every few minutes on Wednesday morning, with some explosions in the distance and others closer to the city.
The escalation has raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which for more than three decades have been locked in a struggle over the mountainous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The most recent heavy fighting there occurred over six weeks in 2020.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry announced the start of the military operation hours after it reported that four soldiers and two civilians died in land mine explosions in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ministry did not immediately give details but said that front-line positions and the military assets of Armenia’s armed forces were being “incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” and that only legitimate military targets were being attacked.
Russia’s defense ministry said Wednesday that its peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh had evacuated more than 2,000 civilians, but did not give details on where they were taken.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry, however, denied that its weapons or troops were in Nagorno-Karabakh and called reported sabotage and land mines in the region “a lie.” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiyan alleged that Azerbaijan’s main goal is to draw Armenia into hostilities.
Ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement that Stepanakert and villages in the region were “under intense shelling.” The region’s military said Azerbaijan was using aircraft, artillery and missile systems, as well as drones in the fighting.
Residents of Stepanakert moved to basements and bomb shelters, and the fighting cut off electricity. Food shortages persisted in the area, with limited humanitarian aid delivered Monday not distributed due to the shelling, which resumed in the evening after halting briefly in the afternoon.
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan said Wednesday that 32 people, including seven civilians, were killed and more than 200 others were wounded. Stepanyan earlier said one child was among those killed, and 11 children were among the wounded.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, from large-caliber weapons, killing one civilian.
Neither claim could be independently verified.
Nagorno-Karabakh and sizable surrounding territories were under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 end of a separatist war, but Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh during the 2020 fighting. That ended with an armistice placing Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, Azerbaijan alleges that Armenia has smuggled in weapons since then. The claims led to a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, causing food and medicine shortages.
Thousands of protesters gathered Tuesday in central Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some clashed with police, who reportedly used stun grenades. A total of 34 people — 16 policemen and 18 civilians — were injured in the clashes, Armenia’s Health Ministry said. About half of them continue to receive medical assistance, the ministry said.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Air Force is expanding its study of whether service members who worked with nuclear missiles have had unusually high rates of cancer after a preliminary review determined that a deeper examination is needed.
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