Armenia, Azerbaijan trade accusations of breaching Karabakh ceasefire
A woman stands outside a shelter in the city of Stepanakert, during the ongoing military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. AFP
Armenia and Azerbaijan traded accusations of new attacks on Saturday in breach of a ceasefire deal to end nearly two weeks of heavy fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The two sides agreed to implement the ceasefire from noon on Saturday, after 11 hours of talks in Moscow, but it took only minutes after the deadline for their forces to claim new attacks.
An ethnic Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan, Karabakh broke from the country's control in a war in the 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Its separatist government is strongly backed by Armenia, which like Azerbaijan gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The heaviest clashes since the war erupted on September 27, with more than 450 people reported dead, thousands forced to flee their homes and fears the fighting could escalate into a devastating all-out conflict.
Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said that "in disregard of the previously declared humanitarian ceasefire" Azerbaijani forces launched an attack on the frontline at 12:05 pm (0805 GMT).
Azerbaijan's defence ministry said Armenian forces had also carried out attacks on the frontline and were shelling two populated areas. "Armenia is blatantly violating the ceasefire regime," the ministry said in a statement.
The two sides had also accused each other of attacks just before the ceasefire deadline. Karabakh's ombudsman Artak Beglaryan said missiles had been fired at the region's main city Stepanakert while Azerbaijan said at least five populated districts were under heavy shelling.
Explosions in the distance
An AFP journalist in Stepanakert reported hearing blasts in the city before the ceasefire took effect, but it was calmer after noon, with isolated explosions in the distance. Some residents were venturing out of their homes after days of taking shelter from shelling, rocket fire and drone attacks.
The ceasefire had been announced after talks between the two countries' top diplomats mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He announced in the early hours of Saturday that the truce had been agreed "on humanitarian grounds" and would allow for exchanges of prisoners and bodies.
He also said that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed "substantive negotiations" on resolving the dispute over Karabakh, with France, Russia and the United States continuing as longtime mediators. The region's declaration of independence has not been recognised by any country -- even Armenia -- and the international community regards it as part of Azerbaijan.
The return of fighting has stoked fears of a full-blown war embroiling Turkey, which strongly backs Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military treaty with Armenia. Since the conflict restarted both sides have accused the other of shelling areas populated by civilians and thousands of people have been displaced by the clashes.
Stepanakert is dotted with damaged buildings and unexploded ordnance following days of shelling. AFP journalists have also witnessed destruction in villages in Azerbaijan near the front line. Dozens of civilians have been confirmed killed and the Armenian side has acknowledged more than 400 military deaths, while Azerbaijan has not admitted to any fatalities among its troops.