By Felix Light and Guy Faulconbridge
GORIS, Armenia (Reuters) -Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh need security guarantees before giving up their weapons, an adviser to their leader said on Thursday, a day after Azerbaijan declared it had brought the breakaway region back under its control.
Karabakh Armenian authorities accused Azerbaijan of violating a ceasefire agreed on Wednesday after a lightning Azerbaijani offensive forced the separatists to agree to disarm.
Baku’s defence ministry said the allegation that its forces had broken the ceasefire was “completely false”. Two sources in Karabakh’s main city told Reuters they had heard heavy gunfire on Thursday morning, but it was not clear who was firing.
The shooting and the conflicting narratives highlighted the potential for further bloodshed despite a deal agreed 24 hours earlier that Azerbaijan said had restored its sovereignty over Karabakh after 35 years of conflict.
“We have an agreement on the cessation of military action but we await a final agreement – talks are going on,” David Babayan, an adviser to Nagorno-Karabakh’s breakaway ethnic Armenian leader Samvel Shahramanyan, told Reuters.
Asked about giving up weapons, Babayan said his people could not be left to die, so security guarantees were needed first.
“A whole host of questions still needs to be resolved,” he said. “At any moment they could destroy us, engage in genocide against us.”
Azerbaijan said it had agreed to a request to provide fuel and humanitarian aid to Karabakh, after imposing a de facto blockade for the past nine months.
The talks took place in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh between Azerbaijan and representatives of the Republic of Artsakh, as the Karabakh Armenians call themselves.
Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim nation, has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says it wants a smooth “reintegration” of the region’s ethnic Armenian, Christian population.
President Ilham Aliyev said on Wednesday the Armenians would enjoy full educational, cultural and religious rights, but wrapped his message in harsh nationalist rhetoric.
All ethnic groups and faiths would be united as “one fist – for Azerbaijan, for dignity, for the Motherland”, he said on state television.
Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has enjoyed de facto independence since breaking away in a war in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Restoring control has been a cherished dream for Aliyev, who launched a lightning military operation on Tuesday that quickly broke through Karabakh Armenian lines.
The Karabakh authorities said at least 200 people had been killed on their side. Aliyev said some Azerbaijanis had died as “martyrs” and other soldiers had been wounded, without specifying how many.
In his speech to the nation, Aliyev focused his anger on Karabakh’s leadership: “After the surrender of the criminal junta, this source of tension, this den of poison, has already been consigned to history.”
Defeat is a bitter pill for the separatists and for Armenia, which helped its kin in the enclave to maintain their autonomy and fought two wars with Azerbaijan in the space of 30 years.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan acknowledged in a speech to mark his country’s independence day that Armenians were enduring “untold physical and psychological suffering”.
But he said that, to guarantee its survival, his country badly needed peace.
Aliyev said on Wednesday that Armenia’s restraint in not trying to block Baku’s offensive would remove an obstacle to peace between the two Caucasus neighbours. An aide to Aliyev said Baku had given Yerevan a new draft peace agreement, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.
Russia, which has peacekeepers in the region, also did nothing to stand in the way of the Azerbaijani offensive – a source of bitter resentment to many Armenians who looked to Moscow as an ally and protector.
Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Moscow believed the question of who Karabakh belongs to had now been resolved, and that this represented substantial movement towards a peace treaty.
In Yerevan, thousands of protesters on Wednesday night denounced their government’s failure to protect Karabakh.
Many demanded the resignation of Pashinyan, who presided over defeat to Azerbaijan in a six-week war in 2020 that paved the way for this week’s loss of Karabakh but nevertheless won re-election several months later.
In Karabakh, many ethnic Armenians have fled their homes in the past three days, some massing at the airport in the main city and others taking shelter with Russian peacekeepers.
On the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan, on a remote hillside near the village of Kornidzor, Armenian men in a column of around 20 cars stood waiting for friends and family trapped in Karabakh, should they be allowed to leave.
One man who gave his name as Hayk said he had spent days on the border hoping to find his father, who had been in Karabakh for work when the blockade was imposed last December and had been trapped ever since.
Residents of Stepanakert, the Karabakh capital which Azerbaijan calls Khankendi, said there was no electricity, shops were bare, and people were lighting fires in courtyards to cook whatever food they could find.
“There are a lot of displaced people from the villages, they were just moved to the city and had nowhere to spend the night,” said Gayane Sargsyan, who runs a wellness business in the city.
In a voice message, she told Reuters that rumours were swirling about what would happen next and people were in “chaos and bewilderment”.
(Reporting by Felix Light in Goris and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova; writing by Mark TrevelyanEditing by Gareth Jones)
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