PHOTO: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Azerbaijan’s military attacked the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region Tuesday in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation,” three years after a bitter war over the mountainous region internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but home to at least 100,000 Armenian citizens. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence announced the operation Tuesday afternoon as shelling and drone attacks were reported on social media across the region’s capital, Stepanakert, after Baku said 11 civilians and police were killed earlier in the day by mines it claimed were placed by Armenian forces.
The statement accused Armenian forces of placing weapons systems near civilians and conducting indiscriminate shelling and announced humanitarian corridors for residents to flee to safety into Armenia. The operation is intended to "disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories, (and) neutralise their military infrastructure," the Azerbaijani MoD said.Armenia has long accused Azerbaijan of failing to leave humanitarian corridors open, including a near blockade on goods entering the area over the last nine months that has led to a significant humanitarian crisis. “Humanitarian corridors and reception stations have been created on the Lachin road and in other directions to ensure the evacuation of the population from the danger zone,” said the MoD statement.“Creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ is often code for ethnic cleansing,” said a European Union diplomat, who does not have permission to openly speak to the media. “The MoD statement cited humanitarian and international law but few think that Armenians that flee will be allowed to return to Azeri controlled territory.”
Armenia strongly denied any military presence in the breakaway republic since the 2020 war that saw Azerbaijan forces drive them from the region. But armed separatist groups opposed to Azeri rule remain active and have conducted limited operations in the past. Armenia emerged victorious in a short but brutal war in 1992 that killed about 10,000 people and took control of the territory in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the international community has long recognized Azerbaijan’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, its mostly ethnic Armenian composition made resolving the dispute impossible. In 2020 – backed by high tech weapons supplied by Turkey and Israel – the Azerbaijani military crushed the Armenian defences around a key corridor linking Stepanakert with the rest of Armenia.A Russian-brokered ceasefire – backed by thousands of Russian peacekeepers – was supposed to leave humanitarian corridors open to the region but with Russia largely distracted by its invasion of Ukraine, Armenia has repeatedly argued the agreement has not been enforced. The Armenian government responded to Tuesday’s attack by calling upon Russia to militarily enforce the ceasefire. But Russia’s tepid statement about the situation appeared to involve a response to Armenia’s criticism of the Russian presence.“We are deeply alarmed by the sharp escalation of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian MFA. “The Russian side urges the conflicting parties to stop the bloodshed, immediately cease hostilities.”She then added that while recent anti-Russian rhetoric by Armenian officials were “unacceptable,” this situation would not affect the countries “bi lateral’ relationship.