By Stefan J. Bos
New clashes were reported between Azerbaijan and Armenia just hours after the US President had proudly announced on social networking site Twitter that his team managed to negotiate a ceasefire between the warring Caucasus nations.
The US-brokered truce was a third attempt to establish a lasting ceasefire in the flare-up of a decades-old conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Two previous Russia-brokered agreements, including one last weekend, collapsed immediately after taking force, with both sides blaming each other for violations.
The new ceasefire was also challenged quickly by accusations from both sides. Azerbaijani Defense Ministry alleged that Armenian forces fired at Azerbaijani settlements and the positions of the Azerbaijani army.
It said attacks happened “along the entire front, as well as on the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border” and involved various small arms, mortars, and howitzers.
Armenian military officials rejected the accusations and accused Azerbaijani forces of shelling the northeastern area of Nagorno-Karabakh and other regions.
Local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh also charged that Azerbaijan targeted the town of Martuni with military aviation. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied it violated the ceasefire agreement.
Amongst the population in Nagorno-Karabakh, there are Christian and Catholic communities including one that worships in the 19th-century Armenian Apostolic cathedral in the town of Shusha.
The Holy Saviour Cathedral, also known as Ghazanchetsots, was heavily damaged in recent shelling, allegedly by Azerbaijan’s forces. But priests there can still be seen ringing the bells and praying for the victims and for peace inside the damaged church.
‘Prayers reaching God’
“It doesn’t matter if these prayers come from basements, houses, or churches – all prayers reach God,” said Armenian priest Andreas Tavadyan. “To be honest, there are far more dangerous places in Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh]. There is a front line which is really dangerous. But this is our front line; we have to fight the evil, we pray. It’s our [spiritual] battlefield.”
He added: “I believe this danger is not that important for us. No matter if we see that the cathedral is damaged, we know God is in all of our prayers. God will save us.”
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim nation, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia, which is primarily Christian, since a war there ended in 1994.
The latest fighting that began on September 27 has involved heavy artillery, rockets, and drones. The violence has officially killed more than 1,000 people in the largest escalation of hostilities over the separatist region in more than a quarter-century.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that Moscow’s information suggests the death toll from the fighting was nearing 5,000, significantly higher than what both sides report.