Doubt over deal opening road to Azerbaijan breakaway region as truck idles

FILE PHOTO: An ethnic Armenian soldier looks through binoculars as he stands at fighting positions near divided Taghavard village in Nagorno-Karabakh region

By Felix Light and Nailia Bagirova

TBILISI (Reuters) -A truck carrying aid to Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region was left idling by a road on Sunday, despite a deal announced by both the government and ethnic Armenian separatists to open the route for the first time in decades.

The agreement, announced by Armenia's Armenpress news agency on Saturday after a new leader took office in the breakaway region, would have allowed a Russian shipment of aid to cross into Nagorno-Karabakh from government-held territory. That would fulfil a longstanding demand by Azerbaijan's government to link the breakaway region to the rest of the country.

However, Azeri television showed pictures of the truck, sent by the Russian Red Cross, idling on a roadside in the city of Barda northeast of Karabakh. Neither side offered a full public explanation of the situation, or whether the deal to open the road was still in place.

Much of Karabakh, recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan, has been controlled since the 1990s by its population of around 120,000 ethnic Armenians after a war fought as the Soviet Union dissolved.

But Azerbaijan recaptured swathes of territory in and around the enclave in another brief war in 2020, and has has since put increasing pressure on the separatists.

For the past nine months, Baku has imposed an effective blockade on the region by closing the "Lachin corridor" linking it to Armenia, which Baku says was being used by the separatists to bring in weapons.

Both sides had said on Saturday the road from other parts of Azerbaijan into Karabakh would be opened on Sunday to allow the Russian aid shipment.

Armenpress characterised this as part of a deal under which the Lachin corridor would also be opened, to alleviate the desperate humanitarian situation in the enclave. Azeri presidential foreign affairs adviser Hikmat Hajiev said the two roads were two separate issues, and an Azeri checkpoint would remain in Lachin though restrictions there would be eased.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement it was conducting talks with both sides about opening both routes for aid, and denied that it was holding up the Russian Red Cross shipment.

"The decision to allow humanitarian aid through or not is in the hands of the sides," it said. "Our aim is strictly humanitarian to reach those most in need of assistance in line with our fundamental principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence."

Recent days have seen escalating tensions around Karabakh, where Armenia has said Azerbaijan is massing troops, which Baku denies. Both sides engaged in a flurry of calls to world leaders on Saturday.

On Sunday, Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry said one of its soldiers had been wounded by a mine on the Karabakh frontline, which Karabakh authorities denied.

Karabakh's parliament on Saturday elected Samvel Shahramanyan the territory's new president, a week after his predecessor resigned. Azerbaijan condemned the vote as illegal.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, a strong backer of Azerbaijan, said he had spoken to Aliyev by telephone, condemning the Karabakh vote, and that he would hold a call with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the coming days.

Armenia's relations with traditional ally Russia have sharply deteriorated in recent weeks, with Yerevan accusing Moscow of failing to restore transport links to the territory.

Moscow has peacekeepers in Karabakh and had acted as the guarantor of an agreement that ended the 2020 war, which called for the Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia to remain open. Yerevan says the Russian troops did nothing to prevent the Azeris from imposing their blockade.

Speaking at the G20 summit in India, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Armenian suggestions that Russia had "given away" Karabakh to Azerbaijan were incorrect.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke to Pashinyan on Saturday, said in a statement on Sunday that Washington was "deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation".

(Reporting by Felix Light in Tbilisi and Nailia BagirovaWriting by Peter Graff)