A view of Aghavno village, June 2022 (photo Lilit Shahverdyan)

Karabakh to Evacuate Settlers from Corridor to Armenia amid Rising Tensions, Sustained Attacks by Azerbaijan

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STEPANAKERT (Combined Sources) — Bowing to strong pressure from Azerbaijan, authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have ordered ethnic Armenian residents of the Lachin corridor connecting the territory to Armenia to leave their homes before the end of this month.

The five-kilometer-wide corridor became Karabakh’s sole overland link to Armenia following the 2020 war. Armenian forces pulled out of the rest of the wider Lachin district under the terms of the Russian-brokered ceasefire that stopped the six-week hostilities.

The truce accord calls for the construction of a new Armenia-Karabakh highway that will bypass the town of Lachin (Berdzor) and two Armenian-populated villages located within the current corridor protected by Russian peacekeeping troops.

Karabakh’s leadership revealed on August 2 that Azerbaijan has demanded through the peacekeepers the quick closure of the existing corridor and suggested that the Armenian side use a bypass road which has yet to be constructed. Armenia’s government dismissed the demands as “not legitimate” before two Karabakh Armenian soldiers were killed and 19 others wounded on August 3 in heavy fighting with Azerbaijani forces.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan argued on August 4 that the truce accord requires Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia to work out before 2024 a joint “plan” for the construction of a new Armenia-Karabakh road. No such plan has been drawn up yet, he said.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said, however, that the three sides agreed on the “route” of the new corridor earlier this year and accused Yerevan of dragging out work on its Armenian sections.

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Later that day, the few remaining residents of the town of Lachin said local officials told them to evacuate the town for good. A senior official from Stepanakert, Hayk Khanumyan, communicated the same order to some 200 people living in the nearby village of Aghavno at a meeting on Friday.

“He said that the Azerbaijanis will come and the Russians will leave [the current corridor] on August 25,” Mariam Hakobyan, an Aghavno resident, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.

“The people [of Aghavno] look like they are hypnotized,” she said. “We don’t know what to do.”

Hakobyan said that the Karabakh government promised that each Aghavno family will receive 10 million drams ($24,000) for buying a new home in Karabakh or Armenia. He dismissed the promised aid, saying that it is well below the current housing prices.

“We have nowhere to go,” said Anna Margarian, who lives in the town of Berdzor (Lachin) with her family.

Officials in Yerevan and Stepanakert did not publicly comment on the planned evacuation.

It is also unclear how traffic between Armenia and Karabakh will be carried out if the existing Lachin corridor is handed over to Baku by the end of this month.

More than a dozen kilometers south of the corridor, Azerbaijani and Turkish firms are reportedly completing the construction of a 32-kilometer-long highway that should link up to new road sections in Armenia and Karabakh. Work on those sections has yet to start in earnest.

US, Europe Call for ‘De-escalation’

The Ministry of Defense of Russia this week confirmed that the Azerbaijani military breached the ceasefire in the Sotk section of Gegharkunik Province, which led to an Armenian serviceman being wounded. However, many other nations still do not ascribe blame to that country.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for continued dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan late on Friday, August 5, when he phoned the leaders of the two states to discuss the latest upsurge in violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“I urged continued restraint and direct dialogue with Azerbaijan to resolve these issues,” Blinken tweeted after his phone call with Pashinyan.

In a separate tweet, he said he assured Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that the United States is ready to facilitate such dialogue.

According to the US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, Blinken also “called for de-escalation” during his conversation with Aliyev. He told Pashinyan that Washington is “watching the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh closely,” said Price.

Pashinyan was cited by his office as accusing Azerbaijan of “deviating” from key terms of the Russian-brokered ceasefire that stopped the 2020 war in Karabakh.

“Secretary of State Blinken expressed concern about the tension and willingness to assist in stabilizing the situation,” added the office.

The State Department urged “immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation” on Wednesday hours after two Karabakh Armenian soldiers were killed and 19 others wounded in fighting with Azerbaijani forces.

“The recent increase in tensions underscores the need for a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” said Price.

Blinken already held phone calls with Pashinyan and Aliyev on July 25. He said afterwards that he sees a “historic opportunity to achieve peace in the region.”

European Council President Charles Michel also spoke with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders by phone. Michel indicated on Friday night that he is poised to host fresh negotiations between them in Brussels.

“Ahead of our next leaders’ meeting in Brussels, pursuing dialogue and achieving concrete progress on all items on the agenda is key,” he wrote on Twitter.

President of France Emmanuel Macron is closely following the developments in the South Caucasus, the French presidency said in a statement.

According to the statement, Macron talked over the phone with Aliyev and “called for everything to be done to avoid an escalation and to give full scope to negotiations with Armenia.”

“[President Macron] expressed his concern over the serious incidents that have occurred in recent days, particularly in the area of the Lachin corridor. He called for everything to be done to avoid an escalation and to give full scope to negotiations with Armenia. He stressed the importance of respecting the commitments made under the ceasefire agreement of November 9, 2020,” the French presidency said.

“France remains in close contact with the parties and with its partners in order to continue to support and contribute to efforts in favor of dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and for stability in the region.”

The Elysee Palace also noted that Macron had a phone conversation with Pashinyan the day before as well.

The President of the European Council Charles Michel held phone conversations with Pashinyan and Aliyev regarding the latest developments in the region, he wrote on his Facebook page.

“We are working together to ensure de-escalation and open communication. Ahead of the next meeting of the leaders in Brussels, the continuation of the dialogue and the achievement of clear progress on all issues on the agenda are of key importance. The EU remains committed,” Michel wrote.

US Members of Congress Speak Out

US Rep. Brenda Lawrence strongly condemned Azerbaijan’s use of military pressure against Artsakh along the Lachin Corridor, on her Twitter page.

“I urge the Department of State to use any diplomatic tool at our disposal to prevent such an attack,” she wrote.

The US Department of State should use all its diplomatic tools to hold Azerbaijan’s leadership accountable for the attacks against Artsakh, US Rep. Jan Schakowsky said.

“Azerbaijan should be held accountable for once again violating the ceasefire agreement with Armenia. I call on the Department of State to use all its diplomatic tools to hold Aliyev’s regime accountable for the attacks against Artsakh and to prevent further massacres,” Schakowsky wrote on her Twitter page.

US Rep. Lori Trehan called on the United States and allied countries to condemn the latest violence against Artsakh by Azerbaijan, on her Twitter page.

“I’ve heard from many Armenian Americans in Massachusetts who are rightly outraged by Azerbaijan’s latest violent attack that has led to tragic and unnecessary loss of life. The U.S. and our allies must condemn this violence and work diplomatically to prevent future escalation,” she wrote.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) condemned Azerbaijan’s latest attack against Artsakh, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Aliyev’s troops.

Chairman Menendez’s tweet reads:“Azerbaijan’s deadly attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh are not only in violation of the ceasefire but also an unacceptable continuation of its recent pattern of aggression. Azerbaijani forces must withdraw from the region & end hostilities against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) condemned Azerbaijan’s latest attack against Artsakh, and calls for an end to U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan, the immediate return of Armenian POWs, and expansion of aid to Artsakh.

Schiff issued the following statement after Azerbaijan’s attack:

“I am deeply disturbed by reports of casualties, including two Armenian soldiers, in Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh – the result of Azerbaijan’s direct violation of its ceasefire agreement with Armenia. This is hardly the first time Azerbaijan has attacked Armenian forces unprovoked, and unless the United States takes immediate action to hold the Aliyev regime accountable, it will not be the last. It is imperative the State Department use all of its diplomatic channels and levers to reduce tensions and show America’s unwavering support for Armenian sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Artsakh.

“In this year’s national defense funding legislation and for years past, I have repeatedly called for the immediate release of all Armenian prisoners of war and captured civilians, tens of millions in humanitarian aid and economic assistance for Artsakh, a full prohibition on U.S. security assistance to Azerbaijan, and renewed American engagement through the OSCE Minsk Group to reinvigorate the peace process. Each of these actions is critical to defending the Armenian people, and sending a resolute message that America can and will defend democracy around the world.

“I will always stand with the people of Armenia and Artsakh.”

(Reports from Azatutyun and Armenpress were used to compile this report.)

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