Europe 1 with AFP 10:56 am, September 21, 2023

Talks between Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists from Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yavlakh. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed his "unreserved support" for Baku Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, who provided him with "information" about the "current situation".

Initial talks between Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists from Nagorno-Karabakh began Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh after a lightning military victory by Baku to regain control of the breakaway territory. In images broadcast by the official Azerbaijani news agency Azertag, six men in suits are around a table to negotiate the reintegration of this territory populated mainly by Armenians into Azerbaijan. Among them, a representative of Nagorno-Karabakh is visible, David Melkumian.

A column of black 4X4s had earlier arrived at the scene of the talks, in Yevlakh, 295 km west of the Azerbaijani capital, followed by a vehicle on which a Russian flag flies and bearing Russian army license plates. Since the end of 2020 and a previous war, Russia has had a peacekeeper mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed Ankara's "unreserved support" for Baku during a telephone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, who provided him with "information" about the "current situation", announced the Turkish presidency.

According to the latest assessment of Armenian separatists, the Azerbaijani military operation that ended in 24 hours Wednesday at midday left at least 200 dead and 400 wounded. The Russian Defense Ministry said two Russian soldiers were killed on Wednesday when their car came under fire.

"Peaceful reintegration"

Cornered by the firepower of Azerbaijani units and Armenia's decision not to come to their aid, the separatists agreed to surrender all their weapons and participate in initial talks on the "reintegration" of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. In parallel, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council will take place in the afternoon, the Albanian presidency of the Council confirmed on Tuesday evening. On the eve of the negotiations, Hikmet Hajiev, an adviser to the Azerbaijani president, assured that Azerbaijan had "as its goal the peaceful reintegration of Armenians in Karabakh" and a "normalization" of relations with Armenia.

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He promised "safe passage" to Armenian separatist forces, assuring that "all actions" carried out "on the ground" were coordinated with the Russian peacekeeping contingent. Twenty-four hours after the launch of its military offensive, Azerbaijan has "restored its sovereignty" over Nagorno-Karabakh, Ilham Aliyev said Wednesday. The Azerbaijani victory fuels fears of a mass departure of the 120,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, while images broadcast by local media showed a crowd gathered at the airport of the Russian-controlled separatist capital Stepanakert.

More than 10,000 people, including women, children and the elderly, have already been evacuated from the enclave, a separatist official said Wednesday night. Russian peacekeepers said Thursday morning they had treated about 5,000 evacuees.

Pashinyan under pressure, Aliyev strengthened

After the ceasefire was declared on Wednesday, Armenia accused the Azerbaijani army of opening fire on its positions on the border with Azerbaijan. "Units of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces fired small arms at Armenian combat outposts near Sotk," the Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement. The separatists' capitulation has ratcheted up pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has been criticized for not sending aid to Nagorno-Karabakh.

A day after clashes outside the government headquarters, thousands of demonstrators, supporters of the separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh, gathered again on Wednesday night and clashes broke out with police. Nikol Pashinyan "has to go, he can't lead the country," said one of them, Sarguis Hayats, a twenty-year-old musician.

Using the oil windfall to strengthen his army, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is on the verge of succeeding in his bet to regain control of this region mainly populated by Armenians, which has been the scene of two wars between the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus that are Azerbaijan and Armenia: one from 1988 to 1994 (30,000 dead) and the other in autumn 2020 (6,500 dead). This victory "will certainly increase the popularity of Ilham Aliyev", in power for twenty years but he will now have to "keep his promise" to guarantee the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, stressed Shahin Hajiev, an independent Azerbaijani expert.

Russia as mediator

Totally absorbed in the war in Ukraine for more than a year and a half, Russia played a mediating role in the signing of this ceasefire, said the separatists and Baku. But Moscow, which considers the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh to be an "internal affair" of Azerbaijan, has so far said nothing about the agreement. On Wednesday evening, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin said negotiations on the future of the enclave would take place with "mediation" by Russian forces deployed on the ground. Fearing that the resumption of hostilities would destabilize the entire Caucasus, the West and Russia had called on Tuesday for an immediate cessation of fighting.

The Azerbaijani authorities had launched their "anti-terrorist" operation that day, following the death of six people in the explosion of mines laid, they claimed, by Armenian "saboteurs".