Ethnic Armenian fighters began surrendering their weapons in Nagorno-Karabakh Saturday, as the first humanitarian aid convoy crossed into the region heading for the isolated town of Stepanakert.
Russian peacekeepers said ethnic Armenian units had handed over six armoured personnel carriers and 800 guns since capitulating after a lightning Azerbaijani offensive earlier this week.
Azerbaijani forces displayed an arsenal of weaponry, including sniper rifles, hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and four tanks painted with cross insignia.
“We have more like that in the forest, but we can’t bring them all here,” said Lieutenant General Mais Barkhudarov, commander of Azerbaijan’s 2nd Army Corps.
Disbanding ethnic Armenian forces is considered vital for a peace deal to work in the breakaway region.
With both sides so far appearing to be holding to the deal, the Red Cross and aid groups have tried to get humanitarian aid, food and medical supplies to the estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians cut off in Nagorno-Karabakh.
At an Azerbaijani military checkpoint that blocks the Lachin Corridor, the only road that connects Stepanarkert with mainland Armenia, the Sunday Telegraph on Saturday saw soldiers checking a convoy of 23 aid trucks for banned weapons before it carried on towards the city.
The Russian military has said that it has already delivered 50 tonnes of aid to Stepanakert, the region’s de facto capital, where thousands of people have been hiding in basements since the Azerbaijani attack on Tuesday.
One woman in Stepanakert told the Sunday Telegraph that, despite assurances from Baku, no humanitarian corridor out of Nagorno-Karabakh had been set up.
“The blockade continues,” she said. “There is no food, no aid, no help.”
The success of the operation fulfilled a major ambition of Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, who had long sought to conquer the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that is recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians.
Backed by Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan won a five-week war in 2020 but was stopped from conquering the entire region when the Kremlin stepped in and maintained ethnic Armenian control of Stepanakert.
Analysts have said that one of the main issues now was avoiding ethnic cleansing seen in Nagorno-Karabakh after sporadic conflicts and war since the late 1980s.
“The main question may now be whether a mass exodus of Karabakhis to Armenia will happen in an orderly fashion or with bloodshed and detentions of male residents,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
“The situation on the ground is messy and volatile.”