(CN) — A day after Azerbaijan unleashed a large-scale offensive to retake the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenian separatists on Wednesday agreed to lay down their arms and enter a cease-fire to avoid bloodshed.
Baku claimed victory and said it was prepared to “reintegrate” Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has been outside its control for three decades. Azerbaijan's forces had reportedly seized large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh after launching a ferocious offensive using artillery, drones and infantry on Tuesday.
Azerbaijan was condemned for resorting to military means to retake the region and there are fears that ethnic Armenians will be forced out of Nagorno-Karabakh. The attack was seen as a failure of Western and Russian diplomacy to deter Baku.
About 100 people had been killed and hundreds wounded, according to news reports citing ethnic Armenian sources. The office for human rights in the disputed region accused Azerbaijan of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said its armed forces “target and destroy only legitimate military facilities and military infrastructures with high-precision weapons.”
The region, known as Artsakh by Armenians, became a source of friction and armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan when the two former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus gained their independence.
The mountainous region lies within the internationally recognized boundary of Azerbaijan but ethnic Armenians make up the majority of the population and the region has long functioned as a part of Armenia.
About 120,000 people live in the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, which is not recognized as an independent nation even by Armenia. On Wednesday, Artsakh's political leaders said they were ready to lay down their weapons and surrender to prevent further bloodshed.
Since Armenian forces suffered a defeat in a short war in 2020, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has declared that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, a position that has left many Armenians feeling betrayed by the prime minister. Tens of thousands of Armenians joined protests against Pashinyan and stormed government buildings in Yerevan Tuesday and Wednesday.
Protesters also directed their anger at Russia, long a security guarantor for Armenia, and besieged the Russian embassy. Azerbaijan's seemingly successful military offensive is being seen as a blow to Moscow, which has long backed Armenia and wielded strong influence over the South Caucasus.
Pashinyan recently turned toward NATO and the European Union for protection, accusing Moscow of not living up to its promises to defend his country. His flirtation with the West has upset Moscow, which has turned on Pashinyan and reportedly tried to blame him for setting the stage for Azerbaijan's attack on Nagorno-Karabakh.
By late Wednesday, it appeared the ceasefire was holding, with reports saying the level of shelling and fighting had diminished. Still, cease-fires have failed in the past and the risk of further violence remained.
“We hope that military escalation will not continue, because in the current conditions, it is very important to ensure stability and stop combat actions,” Pashinyan said in a televised address to Armenians.
Pashinyan said Armenia was not a party to the ceasefire and that Armenian troops haven't been stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since August 2021.
Azerbaijan said it would reintegrate ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh peacefully, though it insists ethnic Armenians must leave if they do not take Azerbaijani citizenship.
International powers have warned Baku not to push ethnic Armenians out of the region.
There are religious and cultural dimensions to the conflict, with Armenians being mostly Christian and Azerbaijanis mostly Muslim.
Armenians claim a long historical dominance in the area, dating back to several centuries before Christ. Azerbaijan has accused ethnic Armenians of forcing Azerbaijanis out of the region, which was the scene of a bloody war between 1992 and 1994 that killed thousands on each side.
On Wednesday, thousands of ethnic Armenians were massing at the airport in Stepanakert, the main city in Nagorno-Karabakh, eager to flee the conflict. Artsakh officials urged the local population to not panic and leave.
Wednesday's ceasefire was brokered by Russia, which has a contingent of about 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh who are helping evacuate civilians. Talks on the cease-fire agreement were set to take place on Thursday.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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