Failed talks, battlefield impasse: Karabakh faces long war

Tbilisi, Oct 17 (AFP/APP):Three weeks of indiscriminate shelling, hate-filled rhetoric and sluggish diplomacy over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh province have yielded no decisive breakthroughs and instead fuelled fears of a gruelling fight of attrition.

Azerbaijan and the Armenian separatists who control its Karabakh region have been locked in a bitter impasse over the fate of the mountainous province since a war in the 1990s that left 30,000 people dead.

Their long-simmering conflict erupted again three weeks ago in fierce clashes that have sparked allegations of war crimes, left hundreds of people dead and raised alarms over the failure of a decades-long international mediation.

But with neither side making decisive gains — and a smokescreen of claims and counter-claims of victory blurring events on the frontline — there is no telling when the fighting will end.

“Azerbaijan did achieve some military success, but not anything dramatic,” said Gela Vasadze, an analyst with Tbilisi-based think tank the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre. “We can’t say Baku is close to taking control of Karabakh.”

A pact to halt fighting agreed in Moscow on October 10 was left in tatters by fresh shelling and leaders in Azerbaijan and Armenia now double down on their promises to fight until the end.

“With the collapse of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, both parties look set to escalate fighting, with prospectively grave consequences,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. “Azerbaijani advances fuel Armenian fears and counter-strikes.”

‘We are not afraid’

At least 700 people have been killed since clashed erupted late last month, with dozens of confirmed civilian deaths, and Armenian acknowledging more than 600 military fatalities.

But the real death toll is probably much higher since Azerbaijan has not published fatalities among its soldiers.

Despite the rising civilian cost of the battles, both Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev have promised to see the conflict through to the end.

After at least 13 civilians were killed in shelling in Azerbaijan’s second city Ganja on Saturday, Aliyev vowed to capture Karabakh and hunt down Armenian forces “like dogs”.

Pashinyan on Wednesday was equally bellicose when he admitted that Azerbaijani’s forces had made advances along the north and south of the frontline and called on Armenians to “unite to stop the enemy, and win Karabakh’s independence”.

The leaders’ determination to execute a final, decisive battle to resolve the Karabakh conflict with arms — not diplomacy — is echoed by civilians on both sides. “We are not afraid of a long war, even if it takes a year or longer,” said Kamran Karimov, 25, standing next to a store with its windows shattered after Saturday’s blast in Ganja.

Gayane Gharibyan, a 45-year-old Armenian woman who sought refuge in her basement on Saturday from shelling on Karabakh’s main city Stepanakert, was also steadfast. “I was 17 years old during the first war. We built everything here. No one in the world will move from here,” she told AFP.

Rejected roadmap  

That intransigence presents a formidable challenge for international mediators France, Russia and the United States, which brokered a ceasefire in 1994, but lacked political clout to secure a lasting resolution.

In their vision for long-term stability, Armenians must hand over territory near Karabakh occupied since 1993 before a referendum is held on the region’s status and peacekeepers are deployed. But Pashinyan on Tuesday dismissed those principles, saying his government was not prepared to negotiate on “the intolerable formula of land for peace”.

Azerbaijan says after nearly 30 years of impasse, its staunch ally and military sponsor Turkey should be given a seat at the negotiating table. After Russia’s failed efforts of broker peace earlier this month, the Kremlin promised it would intervene if Armenia was attacked directly, as part of a military pact between several former Soviet countries.

“After more than two decades in a low-intensity phase, the Karabakh conflict has now entered a hot stage which could prove as protracted,” said Vasadze, the analyst. The only hope for peace, he said, was if Europen capitals and the United States treat it as a foreign policy priority.

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