A US-brokered ceasefire in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh appeared to have broken down on Monday as Armenian and Azeri forces accused each other of artillery strikes within minutes of the truce coming into effect.
The humanitarian ceasefire was the third attempt to pause almost a month of fighting that has killed about 5,000 people and displaced tens of thousands, in the worst outbreak of hostilities between the two countries for decades.
Both countries’ governments said on Monday they had adhered to the 8am truce but accused the other of launching artillery barrages on military positions and civilian areas.
The mountainous region is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians and has been run by a Yerevan-backed administration since a brutal war that was halted in 1994.
Efforts by Russia, the traditional dominant power in the Caucasus, the US and France to find a negotiated settlement since then have failed. Armenia has blamed the recent outbreak of fighting on Turkey, which has lent strong rhetorical and military support to Azerbaijan, and opposed demands from Moscow and others for a ceasefire.
The intense fighting, which has been marked by the use of long-range artillery and armed drones, and the failure of two previous Russian-brokered ceasefires, has raised fears that the conflict could drag in other powers such as Turkey and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia that would oblige it to defend the country if its sovereign territory was attacked.
Representatives of Russia, France and US — the chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group founded to mediate the conflict — and their foreign ministers said on Sunday they would meet in Geneva on October 29 to continue discussions.
“[Russia, US and France] must remain neutral and not take sides,” Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday. “[They] must convince Armenia that it must stop the aggression, observe the ceasefire and commit to freeing the lands.”
Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has suggested Russian peacekeepers could be deployed to enforce a ceasefire, but Moscow has responded coolly to suggestions of any military deployment.
The US-brokered truce came after the foreign ministers from both countries met secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Friday for separate talks in Washington.
Hours before the fighting broke out again, Donald Trump posted a tweet heralding the ceasefire: “Many lives will be saved. Proud of my team . . . for getting the deal done!”