YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Ethnic Armenian separatists in Azerbaijan’s region of Nagorno-Karabakh surrendered arms Friday to Russian peacekeepers, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, two days after Azerbaijan reclaimed control of the breakaway region that has long been at the center of a conflict with neighboring Armenia.
The ethnic Armenian armed groups handed over six armored vehicles, more than 800 small arms units and 5,000 rounds of ammunition to the peacekeepers, the ministry said in a statement.
Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched a major military operation against Armenian positions in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation,” demanding that the Armenians lay down arms and that the separatist government disband. A day later, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities agreed to the military demands, but talks on how to reintegrate the region into Azerbaijan are continuing.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it recorded two ceasefire violations in the region Friday but said there were no casualties and that it was conducting an investigation in cooperation with Azerbaijan and representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has been a key partner of Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but ties between the two have become strained recently as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has criticized Russia’s failure to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and argued that Armenia needs to turn to the West to ensure its security. Moscow, in turn, has expressed dismay about Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt.
Earlier Friday, Azerbaijan said it was delivering food and other humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been cut off from supplies since late last year because of Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the region’s only link to Armenia.
The ordeal for Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 people worsened this week, as thousands fled the recent fighting without being able to take food with them.
Improving the supply of food and other basic needs will be a key issue in building stability in the region, which is within Azerbaijan but which has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since 1994.
Pashinyan on Friday said at a government meeting that there was no immediate need for the region’s ethnic Armenians to leave their homes, but said Armenia is prepared to receive as many as 40,000 evacuees if needed.
Anxiety is high among the region’s people.
“The majority of the population wants to be evacuated to Armenia. We cannot live with Azerbaijan,” 21-year-old Hayk Harutunyan said in Stepanakert, the regional capital.
“During the last 30 years thousands of Armenians were killed, our brothers and sisters,” he told The Associated Press by telephone, referring to decades of conflict over the region. “Azerbaijan’s goal is the annihilation of the Armenian nation; how can we live with those who want to kill us?”
Harutunyan said city is full of refugees who fled areas that came under control of Azerbaijani forces this week,
“These people left their homes empty-handed, they had no food, no clothes, no place to stay,” he said.
More than 800 people, including 440 children, were at a Russian peacekeeping base Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday and weren’t immediately able to return home, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.
The ministry also said it had enabled humanitarian aid to be delivered along the Lachin corridor.
Azerbaijan’s emergencies ministry said two 20-ton trucks with food and hygiene products as well as two trucks with bread were dispatched to Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday, travelling on the road from Aghdam, east of the region.
Jeyhun Bayramov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, said at the United Nations on Thursday that his country is determined to guarantee Nagorno-Karabakh residents “all rights and freedoms” in line with the country’s constitution and international human rights obligations, including safeguards for ethnic minorities. Talks with Nagorno-Karabakh in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh will continue, he said.
A Stepanakert woman who gave her name only as Mary said the ceasefire regime appeared to be holding on Friday, but that she feared living under the new conditions.
“Azerbaijan starved us for nine months, deprived us of basic living conditions, then attacked the civilian population, how can we stay here after all these atrocities? It’s impossible,” she said.
Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian military in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. Armenian forces also took control of substantial territory around the Azerbaijani region.
Azerbaijan regained control of the surrounding territory in a six-week war with Armenia in 2020. A Russia-brokered armistice ended the war, and a contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region to monitor it.
Associated Press journalists Gaiane Yenokian in Yerevan, Emma Burrows and Aida Sultanova in London and Jim Heintz in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.