Armenia, Azerbaijan announce humanitarian truce

Armenia and Azerbaijan said   Saturday they had agreed a “humanitarian truce” from midnight (2000 GMT) in a new attempt to quell nearly three weeks of fighting over a disputed region.

The ceasefire seeking to end intense clashes over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region went into effect after a major escalation that saw a missile strike kill 13 people including small children in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja. 

It is the warring sides’ second attempt to declare a ceasefire to quell the fighting that has killed hundreds of people since September 27.   

Armenia and Azerbaijan had last Saturday agreed to a ceasefire after 11 hours of talks mediated by Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, but then both accused each other of violating the deal.

“The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan have agreed to a humanitarian truce as of October 18, 00h00 local time,” Armenia’s foreign ministry said late Saturday.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry confirmed the move in an identical statement.

Vahram Poghosyan, spokesman for the Karabakh separatist leader, told AFP: “We will halt fire along the entire front from midnight.”

He said that if Azerbaijan observed the truce Karabakh authorities would “open a humanitarian corridor” for Azerbaijan troops encircled by the separatist army.

“The situation at the front has calmed,” Poghosyan separately said on Facebook. 

The latest announcement came after Russia’s Lavrov held phone talks with his counterparts from Armenia and Azerbaijan and stressed “the need to strictly follow” the ceasefire deal agreed in Moscow last Saturday, the foreign ministry said.

The ministers also confirmed the importance of beginning “substantive” talks to settle the conflict, the ministry in Moscow said.

– France welcomes truce –

French President Emmanuel Macron “welcomed” the humanitarian truce, the Elysee said in a statement.

“This ceasefire must be unconditional and strictly respected by both parties,” added the French presidency.

The latest attempt to halt fighting came after Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev vowed to take revenge on Armenia after a missile strike killed 13 people including small children in the city of Ganja.

The early hours attack, which also saw a strike on the nearby strategic city of Mingecevir, came hours after Azerbaijani forces shelled Stepanakert, the capital of the ethnic Armenian separatist region.

The explosions in Ganja levelled a row of houses and left more than 45 people injured in an attack Aliyev described as “a war crime”. 

He said his army would “take revenge on the battlefield” and promised to capture Karabakh by driving out Armenian forces “like dogs”.

Prosecutors said that as the result of the attack on Ganjia 13 people died including small children.

An AFP team in Ganja saw rows of houses turned to rubble by the strike, which shattered walls and ripped roofs off buildings in the surrounding streets.

People ran outside in shock and tears, stumbling through dark muddy alleys in their slippers, some wearing bathroom robes and pyjamas.

“We were sleeping and suddenly we heard the blast. The door, glass, everything shattered over us,” said Durdana Mammadova, 69, who was standing on the street at daybreak because her house was destroyed. 

Nagorno-Karabakh’s military said for its part that Azerbaijani forces had stepped up their attacks on Friday across the front, shelling Stepanakert and a nearby town.

On Saturday, Karabakh separatist leader Arayik Harutyunyan said before the truce took effect that “intensive fighting” continued “along the entire line of defence”.

The tit-for-tat attacks have so far undermined international efforts to calm a resurgence of fighting between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis and avoid drawing regional powers Russia and Turkey into a conflict that has already killed hundreds of people.

– ‘EU deplores strikes’ –

The EU  earlier Saturday condemned the strike on Ganja and said the original ceasefire deal “must be fully respected without delay”.

“The European Union deplores the strikes on the Azerbaijani city of Ganja,” said a spokesperson for EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell

“All targeting of civilians and civilian installations by either party must stop.”

Turkey, a staunch ally of Azerbaijan and widely accused of supplying mercenaries to bolster Baku’s forces, said the strikes were a war crime and called on the international community to denounce them.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of Azerbaijan mainly inhabited by ethnic Armenians and backed by Yerevan, has been the scene of deadly clashes since September 27.

According to an official, but partial, toll more than 700 people have been killed in the clashes.

The mountainous western region of Azerbaijan has remained under separatist Armenian control since a 1994 ceasefire ended a brutal war that killed 30,000.

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