MOSCOW – Azerbaijan and Armenia opened talks on Friday for a limited ceasefire after nearly two weeks of bitter fighting over a disputed province, with the aim of achieving at least a long enough break to collect the bodies from the battlefield and exchange prisoners.
But the prospects for a broader peace deal appeared dim after Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev said in a televised speech Friday that he was happy to have talks but was making no concessions.
“We are winning and taking back our territory and guaranteeing our territorial integrity,” said Aliyev. “Let them leave our territory in peace.”
Conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian ethnic enclave in Azerbaijan, erupted late last month and threatened to turn into a wider spiral in Russia; Turkey, a member of NATO; and perhaps Iran.
The Russian Foreign Ministry brokered the talks after President Vladimir V. Putin warned earlier this week that Russia could be forced to maintain its mutual defense pact with Armenia if fighting spreads.
“Ours is a tiny country, barely visible on the map, but it could be the start of a gigantic war,” Irina Grigoryan, a Russian literature teacher who fled Nagorno-Karabakh a week ago, said in a telephone interview on Friday. .
After Ms. Grigoryan left with five grandchildren to safety in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, an apartment where some of the children lived was bombed, she said. He said he hopes the ceasefire will hold.
“Can’t they stop the war, at least for a day or two?” she said. “Any negotiation is better than war.”
In late-night telephone conversations with Azerbaijan and Armenia leaders, Putin suggested limited truce as a preliminary step. Mr. Putin invited the foreign ministers of both countries to the talks in Moscow.
Mr. Putin “appealed to stop the ongoing fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh area from a humanitarian perspective”, the Kremlin he said in a statement. “The goal is to exchange the bodies of those who are dead and prisoners. To consult on these issues with the mediation of the Russian Foreign Ministry “both parties have been invited to Moscow, the statement read.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has simmered for decades in a remote mountainous region of little geostrategic significance, after a war in the early 1990s ended in a ceasefire but without a broader agreement. The situation changed when Turkey, which has flexed its muscles regionally in recent months, openly supported its ethnic Turkish ally Azerbaijan in an escalation that began on September 27.
Putin said this week that Russia would honor the defense agreement with Armenia if the fighting extended over Armenian territory rather than the area in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. That statement raised the prospect of Russian intervention and was followed by a call for a truce over the exchange of bodies and prisoners.
Armenia said on Friday that 376 of its soldiers have died in the fighting to date. Azerbaijan has not released the death toll.
Fighting continued on Friday even as Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian foreign ministers prepared for talks in Moscow.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry said the two armies exchanged artillery fire across the front line from Thursday to Friday and that populated areas on its territory have been hit.
Missile artillery on Thursday hit the roof of the Cathedral of the Holy Savior, a beloved 19th-century Armenian cathedral in the hill town of Shusha, partially destroying it. The cathedral was also partially destroyed during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s and later restored.
Azerbaijani state media reported shelling in two districts on Friday. The country’s attorney general said Friday that since the start of fighting last month 31 civilians have been killed and 178 wounded by artillery fire.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement on Friday condemning the violence that has spread to civilian areas. The commission estimated that as of Thursday 58 civilians have been killed, including children, while apartment buildings, schools and other civilian facilities have been destroyed.
The communiqué calls on the military to suspend the use of cluster munitions, which scatter small bombs over a large area and are particularly lethal to civilians. The fighting also threatened to spread the coronavirus, the statement noted.
Michelle Bachelet, the commissioner, said warring parties had to “abide by the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution” and avoid firing explosive weapons in populated areas.