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Tensions mount in Karabakh as parties exchange blame

It has been a tense month in the disputed territory of Karabakh, an area of 4,400 square kilometers in the South Caucasus after accusations that Azerbaijan violated a ceasefire agreement and reignited tensions since early March. Some analysts point to the renewed tensions in Karabakh as a spillover of the war in Ukraine.

In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a 44-day war over Karabakh. The area has been under the control of its ethnic Armenian population as a self-declared state since a war fought in the early 90s, which ended with a 1994 ceasefire and Armenian military victory. In the aftermath of the first war, a new, internationally unrecognized, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was established. Seven adjacent regions were occupied by the Armenian forces. As a result of that war, “more than a million people had been forced from their homes: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the adjacent territories, while Armenians left homes in Azerbaijan,” according to the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent wars and shape policies.

Following the second Karabakh war in 2020, Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions. Azerbaijan also captured one-third of Karabakh itself as a result of the second war.

On Nov. 10, 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. Among several points of the agreement, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a presence of 1,960 Russian peacekeeping forces in those parts of Karabakh “not recaptured by Azerbaijan and a narrow corridor connecting with Armenia across the Azerbaijani district of Lachin.” There are 27 Russian peacekeeping posts inside Azerbaijan.

Since the signed November 2020 agreement, there have been multiple reports of ceasefire violations, with each side blaming the other for flare-ups. But the advance of the Azerbaijani army since February and seizure of a strategic village Farrukh, in the east of Karabakh, protected by the Russian peacekeepers, on March 25, 2022, has led to accusations of ceasefire violation leveled against Azerbaijan by both official Yerevan and Moscow.

At least fifteen Armenian soldiers have been wounded, and three killed since March 24, according to BBC Azerbaijan service reporting, citing the information released by Karabakh self-defense army. The self-defense army also claimed there were casualties from the Azerbaijan side, which Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense has refuted. Meanwhile, in a statement issued on March 25, the Azerbaijan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, there was no need for hysteria while referring to escalated tensions on the line of contact, and that Azerbaijan was clarifying “the positions and locations [of its armed forced] on the ground.”

Earlier this month, “the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of cutting natural gas supplies to the territory in Nagorno Karabakh for the second time,” in one month according to reporting by Eurasianet. The gas to Karabakh is supplied via Armenia, but the pipeline transits through now, Azerbaijan-controlled territory it regained during the second war. The first disruption was reported on March 8 and although it was reportedly restored on March 19, the supply was disrupted again on March 21. The disruption was caused by damage to a gas pipeline supplying Karabakh on March 5. “We have sufficient grounds to assume that during the gas pipeline repairs, the Azerbaijani side installed a valve that stopped the gas supply a few hours ago,” the de facto Karabakh government said in a statement according to reporting by Eurasianet. Baku has denied accusations. In a statement issued on March 25, Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry said, Armenia was “intentionally using the situation as an instrument of political manipulation,” blaming gas supply issues on cold weather and technical problems instead.

On March 26, in a statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry urged both Armenia and Azerbaijan to exercise restraint. The statement also referenced the Russian Ministry of Defense news bulletin, dated March 26, 2022, in which Russia's MoD said, “Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces have entered the zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh and launched four strikes on the Nagorno-Karabakh armed formations, using a Bayraktar TB2 drone, near the village of Furukh,” accusing Azerbaijan of violating the November 10 ceasefire.

In its response, Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense said the statement was one-sided, repeating official Baku's commitment to the joint declaration signed on Nov. 10, 2020.

On March 27, the Russian defense ministry said Azerbaijan withdrew its military presence from Farrukh, which was quickly refuted by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense confirming that the positions remain unchanged. “We notify with regret that the Russian defense ministry’s statement of March 27 is untrue. The positions of the Azerbaijani armed forces in the village of Farrukh and nearby heights, which are an inseparable part of our country, are unchanged,” said the statement released by Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense.

In a statement issued on Monday, March 28, the Armenian Foreign Ministry said it expected the Russian contingent of peacekeeping troops to take concrete steps to stop and secure the return of Baku’s forces to the original positions, reported Russian state-owned news agency TASS.

This was the second time since the November 2020 agreement that Russia has accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire in Karabakh.

Meanwhile, according to state news agency APA, the AzeriGaz said it will restore the supply of natural gas in the Karabakh economic region by March 29. The Armenian language service for Radio Liberty confirmed that the gas supply to Khankendi [Stepanakert in Armenian] was restored on March 29.

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