By Tim Lister, Anna Chernova, Christian Edwards and Radina Gigova, CNN
(CNN) — Azerbaijan said it had taken back the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after launching a lightning 24-hour assault that forced ethnic Armenian forces to surrender and agree to a Russia-brokered ceasefire.
Under the agreement, Azerbaijan said it would halt its military offensive – which killed at least 200 people and injured many more – and said it would hold talks with Karabakh officials “to discuss reintegration.”
The first round of talks took place Thursday, Azerbaijani state media reported, with Karabakh representatives meeting a delegation from Azerbaijan. Few details have been released on the meeting, which was also attended by a representative of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the region.
In a speech to the nation Wednesday evening, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said his forces had “punished the enemy properly” and that Baku had restored its sovereignty “with an iron fist.”
Russia’s peacekeeping force said it had begun to evacuate civilians from Nagorno-Karabakh, but there are fears that Azerbaijan’s reclaiming of the region could create tens of thousands of refugees and Armenia’s government has repeatedly warned of the risk of ethnic cleansing.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the Caucasus Mountains that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is home to around 120,000 ethnic Armenians, who make up the majority of the population and reject Azerbaijani rule. The region has its own de facto government that is backed by Armenia, but is not officially recognized by Armenia or any other country.
The ceasefire began at 1 p.m. local time (5 a.m. ET) Wednesday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s presidential office announced. It said its army had been outnumbered “several times over” by Azerbaijani forces and had no choice but to surrender and agree to “the dissolution and complete disarmament of its armed forces.”
After the ceasefire was announced, local media reported that thousands of Karabakh residents rushed to the airport in the region’s capital Stepanakert, where Russian peacekeepers had established a base. Local officials urged residents to “remain in bomb shelters,” amid fears that Azerbaijani troops could breach the ceasefire.
Evacuation efforts have been complicated by the ongoing blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, after Azerbaijan-backed forces established a military checkpoint along the Lachin corridor – the only road connecting the enclave to Armenia – in December 2022. For the past nine months, imports of food, medicine and fuel to the region have been cut off, prompting Western officials to warn that genocide was being committed against the Armenian population.
Tuesday’s offensive, while brief, will likely have more substantial consequences than the most recent war for control of the region in 2020. During that conflict, Azerbaijan won a crushing victory in 44 days, reclaiming about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh before Russia, historically the dominant power in the region, brokered a ceasefire which saw both sides lay down their weapons.
But, having exposed Armenia’s military inferiority in that war, Azerbaijan has since sought to press home its advantage. Wednesday’s ceasefire handed Azerbaijan a far more comprehensive victory than the 2020 agreement, and the terms of the truce mean returning the whole of the region to Baku’s control.
“Let those who cannot digest our successes remember: the iron fist is in place. And let them not forget: Karabakh is Azerbaijan!” said a triumphant Aliyev in a televised address Wednesday night.
On Thursday, the day after the ceasfire was brokered, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan marked the 32nd anniversary of Armenia’s independence by stressing the need for a lasting peace.
“Peace should not be confused with a truce or a ceasefire,” Pashinyan warned.
Under the 2020 ceasefire, Russia deployed around 2,000 peacekeepers to the region to prevent a new conflict. But Armenian officials have grown frustrated by what it sees as the ineffectiveness of Russia’s contingent, which was laid bare on Tuesday.
Armenia’s Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoruyan accused Russian peacekeepers of failing to protect Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijani aggression, according to state media Armenpress.
The Kremlin rejected Armenia’s criticisms of the Russian peacekeeping contingent. “Such accusations against us are unfounded,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
Azerbaijani prosecutors said five Russian peacekeepers were killed in the village of Chankatagh, in the Terter region, on Wednesday after Azerbaijani troops fired at their car having mistaken them for “illegal Armenian armed groups.”
On the same day, in the same area, “unidentified members of illegal Armenian armed groups” fired at a Kamaz vehicle belonging to the Russian peacekeepers with firearms, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan said on Thursday.
The prosecutor general of Azerbaijan and his Russian counterpart spoke on the phone on Thursday, agreeing to investigate the killings “in close cooperation,” the office added.
Russia’s defense ministry said earlier on Wednesday that an unspecified number of peacekeepers were killed when their car came under fire.
Azerbaijan’s offensive came amid a sharp deterioration in the relationship between historic allies Armenia and Russia. Pashinyan said it was “strange and perplexing” that his government did not receive “any information from our partners in Russia about that operation.”
Armenia has for decades trusted Russia to act as its sole security guarantor, which Russia purports to provide under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of post-Soviet states that includes Armenia but excludes Azerbaijan.
After Azerbaijan’s offensive, a number of prominent Russian commentators and politicians were highly critical of Armenia’s leadership, at times mocking it for its inability to protect ethnic Armenians beyond its borders.
The Kremlin confirmed Wednesday that Moscow was arranging a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. He said a conversation with the Azerbaijani president could also take place if necessary.
Pashinyan later responded to Russian commentators who had blamed his leadership for the plight of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying his government did not seek to shift responsibility to Russia.
“Now there is a lot of talk in the Russian press that Armenia has been trying for a long time to blame Russia for its failures. We do not hold anyone responsible for failures,” Pashinyan said in a video message Thursday.
However, he said that under the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Russia was responsible for controlling the Lachin corridor, which it failed to do by allowing Azerbaijani activists to blockade the road.
“Russia should have guaranteed the safety of the civilian population and in recent years we have been saying that the processes are wrong.”
While Armenia took responsibility for its own shortcomings, Pashinyan said that did not mean “we should close our eyes on the failures of the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
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CNN’s Jessie Gretener, Arzu Geybulla and Katharina Krebs contributed reporting.