Nagorno-Karabakh routes reopen in Lachin corridor deal, say Azeri and Armenian sides | Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan’s government and separatist Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh appeared to strike a deal reopening two disputed transport links including a key route known as the Lachin corridor.

The moves – initially reported by Armenia’s Armenpress state news agency and confirmed by Azerbaijan – appear at least partly to grant the latter’s decades-old demand to restore transport links between Azeri government-held territory and Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians seized control in the 1990s.

Karabakh is recognised globally as part of Azerbaijan, but has been controlled by its population of about 120,000 ethnic Armenians since a war that coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 90s.

Azerbaijan recaptured large swathes of Nagorno-Karabakh in a 2020 war, and for the past nine months has exerted pressure by restricting access to Armenia through the Lachin corridor.

Armenpress cited Karabakh authorities as saying that they had “decided to allow access of the Russian goods to our republic through the town of Askeran”, referring to a Karabakh town close to the frontline with Azerbaijan.

“At the same time, an agreement has been reached to restore humanitarian shipments by the Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross along the Lachin corridor,” the Armenpress report said, referring to the area through which the road linking Karabakh to Armenia passes. It said the move was driven by “severe humanitarian problems” in the blockaded region.

Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, told Reuters on Saturday that a deal had been struck to open roads between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

He stressed that the roads would be opened simultaneously and added that an Azerbaijani checkpoint on Lachin corridor to Armenia would remain.

Azerbaijan had previously accused Armenia of using the corridor to smuggle weapons, and of rejecting an offer to reopen the roads simultaneously.

The apparent deal came on a day Karabakh’s parliament chose a new president of its self-proclaimed independent republic, a move Azerbaijan has denounced as illegal, amid days of escalating tensions between Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan has a close relationship with Turkey, while Armenia has historically held close ties with Russia, which sent peacekeepers to the area and promised to keep the Lachin corridor open as part of a peace deal that ended the 2020 war. Armenia has lately complained that Moscow failed to live up to its assurances, leading him to seek wider international support.

Azerbaijan said on Saturday that Armenian forces had fired on its troops overnight, and that Azerbaijan army units took “retaliatory measures”. Armenia denied the incident.

The Armenian government said its prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, held phone conversations on Saturday with the leaders of France, Germany, Iran and Georgia, and with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Azerbaijan said its foreign minister discussed the situation with a senior US state department official, Yuri Kim.

According to Armenia’s government, Pashinyan told the foreign leaders that tensions were rising on the border, and that Azerbaijan was concentrating troops there and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has denied this, while accusing Armenia of similar steps.

On Saturday, Karabakh’s separatist parliament elected Samvel Shahramanyan, a military officer and former head of the territory’s security service, as its new president, replacing an incumbent who resigned a week ago.

In a speech to parliament, Shahramanyan called for direct negotiations with Azerbaijan, and for transport links to Armenia to be restored.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry called the ethnic Armenian leadership of Karabakh a “puppet separatist regime” and said the vote was illegal. “The only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is the unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and the disbandment of the puppet regime.”

Both Ukraine and Turkey condemned the election, and expressed support for Azerbaijan’s claim to Karabakh. The EU said it did not recognise the election, but that Karabakh residents should “consolidate around the de facto leadership” in talks with Armenia.

In the capitals of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, residents told Reuters they feared a new war between the two countries.

“We will probably have martyrs again,” said Mansura Lahicova, a woman in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. “I have two sons who have reached military age. I hope it will be a victory and that everything calms down.”

In Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, a resident who gave his name as Hayk accused Azerbaijan of wanting to start another war.

“I hope this does not happen, but if it does, all of us, all friends and brothers, are ready to go to war. Last time we buried our friends, now it’s our turn.”

With Reuters

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