BAKU — The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have reached a new cease-fire to end the ethnic Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that makes up the northern tip of their land. The ceasefire — the 13th since 1994 — could mean the end of the war between the two former Soviet republics.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev signed a deal in the wee hours of Sunday morning local time after a night of fraught negotiations, saying that their soldiers would now “be confined to their respective provinces” and provide “adequate security to [their] citizens.”
But just hours after the cease-fire took effect, two men died in an exchange of fire between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers on the fighting line.
The peace may not be secured soon. Ethnic Armenian forces under the control of separatist President Sargsyan still occupy a large part of Azerbaijan’s Azeri-populated regions, and Azerbaijan has vowed to retake them.
Since the 1990s, the two countries have fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, which fought to free itself from the control of Azeri soldiers. Two cease-fires have brought relative calm to the southern front of their conflict, but this one — which involves about 30,000 troops — was likely to offer more lasting stability.
Neither President Sargsyan nor Azerbaijani President Aliyev has explicitly recognized the other’s authority, but both have acknowledged to visiting envoys that they are finally in a position to work out a peace deal.
In an interview with The New York Times, Aliyev said: “There will not be war. … That is inevitable.”
On the outskirts of Baku, a small group of Azeri civilians nervously keep an eye on the front lines, trying to decide if they should go to Azeri-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, or stay put and risk being killed by other Azeri troops. Some of the civilians agreed to discuss their thoughts on the cease-fire ahead of time.
“It is not something that we regret,” said Narsa Gubadzadeh, 35, an Azeri employee working at a farmers’ market in the capital. “The conflict has been going on for so long now, I am not sure that they [Armenians] have any choice.”
The conflict comes to a head in Kalbajar, on Nagorno-Karabakh’s frontier, where some 15,000 people have fled their homes, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, rebel President Serzh Sargsyan’s troops control about 25 percent of Azeri territory.
The conflict in Kalbajar has created a “humanitarian catastrophe,” according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It documented the deaths of at least 2,800 people, including 600 children, during armed clashes between October 2008 and December 2012.
After a United Nations delegation last month visited both sides of the conflict, it expressed concern about a lack of security for ethnic Azeris.
Rights groups have repeatedly criticized the human rights situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, alleging that there has been a disproportionate crackdown on ethnic Armenians — which in turn may be resulting in the flight of Azeri civilians.
“We have been able to establish firsthand that Azerbaijani authorities are carrying out mass arrests of ethnic Armenian citizens,” said Peter Joffe, an analyst who wrote a book on Azerbaijan. “There are no confirmed accounts of mass killings, but they do not need to occur to escalate tensions.”
Nataliya Isayeva, a 49-year-old Azeri who is staying at a relative’s place, is worried that Azerbaijan may retaliate for the cease-fire by repressing ethnic Azeris there.
“One incident will cause a third,” she said. “And we won’t be able to leave without being caught in the crossfire.”