Fresh explosions rocked the capital of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on Saturday despite a ceasefire agreed between warring neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan that brought a brief lull in shelling and missile strikes earlier in the day.
The truce, which entered into force at noon on Saturday, had been agreed between both sides in marathon Russia-brokered talks in Moscow.
Azerbaijan and Armenia immediately accused each other of violations, but the agreement appeared to curb artillery fire during the afternoon, with some Stepanakert residents emerging from their homes after days of heavy bombardment.
The respite was short, however, with seven loud explosions rocking the badly damaged city at around 23:30 pm (1930 GMT) on Saturday evening, triggering fresh air raid sirens, an AFP journalist working in the city reported.
A senior Azerbaijani official said the truce was only meant to be “temporary”.
“It’s a humanitarian ceasefire to exchange bodies and prisoners. It’s not a (proper) ceasefire,” the official said, adding that Baku had “no intention to backtrack” on its effort to retake control of Karabakh.
The disputed territory is an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, home to about 150,000 people, which broke from Azerbaijan’s control in a war in the 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.
Its separatist government is strongly backed by Armenia, which like Azerbaijan gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The most recent fighting since September 27 has been the heaviest since the 1990s war, with more than 450 people reported dead, thousands forced to flee their homes and fears the fighting could escalate into a devastating all-out conflict.
Earlier in the day, the Armenian defence ministry had accused Azerbaijani forces of launching an attack on the frontline five minutes after the ceasefire came into force.
In return, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Armenian forces had also carried out attacks on the frontline and shelled populated areas, accusing it of “blatantly violating the ceasefire.”
In the evening, it said that Armenian armed forces had attempted to launch an offensive in several areas but were “forced to retreat.”
– ‘These people hate us’ –
On Saturday afternoon in regional capital Stepanakert, air raid sirens that had sounded for days to warn of attacks had stopped, and some residents were emerging from shelters to get supplies.
But an AFP correspondent working in the city found few people with much hope of the ceasefire taking hold for long.
“I lived for nearly 20 years in Azerbaijan, these people hate us,” Vladimir Barseghyan, 64, told AFP in a workshop making uniforms for fighters at the front. “We don’t believe in a ceasefire, they just want to gain some time.”
In Barda, an Azerbaijani town about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the conflict zone, many residents who spoke to AFP were against the ceasefire and in favour of Baku pressing on with its campaign to restore its control over Karabakh.
“We don’t want a ceasefire. They should leave our lands,” said Zemfira Mammadova, a 71-year-old retiree.
“They should get out and let our people live a normal life. We have nothing to do with them and they should stay away from us.”
The ceasefire deal was announced after talks between the two countries’ top diplomats mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
He said the truce had been agreed “on humanitarian grounds” and would allow for exchanges of prisoners and bodies.
The Red Cross offered to act as a “neutral intermediary” to facilitate the handover of bodies and detainees.
The Russian ministry said Saturday evening that Lavrov had spoken to his counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan who “confirmed their commitment” to the deal and “stressed the need for its strict observance on the ground.”
– Call for ‘substantive negotiations’ –
Lavrov said that Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed at the Moscow talks to “substantive negotiations” on resolving the dispute over Karabakh, with France, Russia and the United States continuing as longtime mediators.
France called for the ceasefire to be strictly respected “in order to create the conditions for a permanent cessation of hostilities.”
Karabakh’s declaration of independence has not been recognised by any country — even Armenia — and the international community regards it as part of Azerbaijan.
The return of fighting has stoked fears of a full-blown war embroiling Turkey, which strongly backs Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military treaty with Armenia.
Turkey said the ceasefire agreement was an important first step but that Armenia had a “last chance” to withdraw from Karabakh.
Since the conflict restarted both sides have accused the other of shelling areas populated by civilians and thousands of people have been displaced by the clashes.