Azerbaijan and Armenians from the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh engaged in their initial direct peace negotiations on Thursday, September 21, following Baku’s regaining control over the autonomous region through a swift military operation.

Azerbaijan and Armenians from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh held their first direct peace talks Thursday, after Baku claimed to have regained control over the breakaway region in a lightning military operation.

The Karabakh Armenians agreed to lay down their arms on Wednesday as part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire plan that halted Azerbaijan’s 24-hour offensive to retake land at the center of decades of conflict.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on Thursday that a road to peace with Armenia’s arch-rival was difficult, but must still be pursued. “This path is not easy, it goes through internal and external shocks, and we must pursue it,” he said.

A woman holds a Karabakh flag as people attend a rally in Yerevan on September 21, 2023, following Azerbaijani military operations against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. (AFP)

Baku’s negotiators presented plans for the “reintegration” of Karabakh’s Armenian population into Azerbaijan and pledged to provide urgently needed fuel, humanitarian supplies, and medical care to residents.

While the meeting was happening, gunfire rang out in the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert on Thursday despite the truce deal.

The region’s human rights ombudsman said on social media that “the streets of Stepanakert are filled with displaced people, hungry, scared, and in uncertainty”.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the small mountainous region. Now, there are concerns of a fresh refugee crisis as Karabakh’s Armenian population fears being forced out.

Pashinyan said the ceasefire was holding overall and he did not see a “direct threat” to the civilian population.

Nonetheless, he said Yerevan was prepared to host 40,000 families from the region, which is estimated to hold up to 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

The European Union said it was ready to provide “urgent humanitarian assistance”, urging Azerbaijan to allow access to the enclave.

And the UN Security Council was due to hold an emergency session to discuss the situation, after separatists said the assault claimed 200 lives.

A separatist official said more than 10,000 people had been evacuated from Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Aliyev to ensure the security for the region’s Armenians.

After the Soviet Union fell apart, Armenian separatists seized the region – internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan – in the early 1990s. That sparked a war that left 30,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Aliyev has said this week’s events would have a “positive impact” on attempts to negotiate a lasting peace between the two feuding Caucasus neighbours.

But mutual distrust remains high and finding a lasting settlement to the decades-long dispute will be a major task.

Khalil Wakim, with AFP