By Nailia Bagirova
(Reuters) – Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday offered the ethnic Armenians of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and also neighbouring Armenia prospects of cooperation, reconciliation and joint development after his forces took control of the enclave.
In a televised address, he said Azerbaijan had regained full sovereignty over its territory and now wished to integrate Karabakh’s population and turn the region into “paradise”.
He said Azerbaijan had nothing against Karabakh’s Armenian people – “they are our citizens” – but only against their “criminal” separatist leadership.
His words appeared aimed at addressing allegations by Armenian leaders that Baku planned to “ethnically cleanse” Karabakh’s 120,000-strong Armenian population, and, more broadly, decades of open hostility and distrust between Baku and Yerevan.
Many Azeris want to return to the region after fleeing in the early 1990s, when ethnic Armenians took control of Nagorno-Karabakh in a war linked to the breakup of the Soviet Union and independence for Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Thousands of Armenian-speakers fearful of what the future might hold had earlier massed at the airport in Stepanakert, Karabakh’s capital known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan, while others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers.
Aliyev said Azerbaijan valued the fact that Armenia, on whose support Nagorno-Karabakh had relied for three decades, had not sought to intervene in Baku’s military operation, but had remained “watchful”. This improved the prospects for peace talks, he said.
Baku has insisted that Armenia maintained forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in contravention of a ceasefire deal agreed after a war in 2020, in which Azerbaijan reclaimed swathes of land in and around the mountainous enclave from Karabakh’s Armenians.
Yerevan denied this, but Aliyev said Azerbaijan’s forces had found 100 Armenian tanks and armoured vehicles.
He said his soldiers had, however, fulfilled instructions to avoid harm to Karabakh’s civilians and to civilian infrastructure in the 24-hour offensive that forced the separatist authorities to surrender.
A separatist Armenian human rights official said on Wednesday that at least 200 people had been killed and more than 400 wounded in the fighting. Ten of those killed were civilians, of whom five were children, the official said. Reuters could not verify the figures.
Azerbaijan’s gains in 2020 left Armenia with few options to help Karabakh to defend itself, and the new balance of power set the stage for fresh peace talks between the two neighbours, punctuated by sporadic outbreaks of cross-border fighting.
Aliyev suggested that the return of Azerbaijani control in Nagorno-Karabakh would not only remove a perennial obstacle to peace but also pave the way for greater cooperation and development across all three countries of the South Caucasus, including Georgia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said this month that Russia, distracted by its war in Ukraine, was winding down its involvement in the region. The Kremlin denied this, saying Russia was “not going anywhere” and would remain the guarantor of security.
(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Kevin Liffey; editing by Grant McCool)