Canada says Armenians face ‘deteriorating humanitarian situation

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A checkpoint of the Russia peacekeeping force is seen on a road towards the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia, March 14, 2023. (Vahram Baghdasaryan, PHOTOLURE via AP)

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OTTAWA The Canadian government is again blaming Azerbaijan for escalating tensions in its Nagorno-Karabakh region, saying it is concerned about the “deteriorating humanitarian situation” for Armenians living in that region.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it is mostly populated by Armenians, and neighbouring Armenia has fought for control of the region for decades.

Tensions rose in the area last fall, when the region’s main access road was blocked by groups of people suspected of being affiliated with the Azerbaijan government, and then by officials who have limited vehicle access.

Azerbaijan insists the region isn’t under a blockade, despite Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch saying food and essentials are severely restricted.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it’s been denied access to all routes into the region, resulting in shortages for medicine, food and baby formula.

Canada is planning on sending two officials to support a European monitoring mission that is aiming to prevent another war in the region.

The Red Cross expressed alarm about Azerbaijan’s blocking of the area shortly after that country’s foreign ministry cited the group’s access to the area as proof that there was no blockade.

The Red Cross said last week it has been able to evacuate “more than 600 people in urgent need of medical care since December 2022,” but still has trouble accessing the region in order to provide medical services.

Global Affairs Canada said in a social media post Tuesday that Azerbaijan should comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to allow the “unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo” into the region.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry noted that the court order still allows for the inspection of vehicles entering the territory, and has alleged that the route has been used by elements affiliated with Armenia to smuggle weapons into the area.

Canadian MPs heard testimony in January about limited access to the region, but the House of Commons foreign affairs committee hasn’t completed its study or issued an interim report on how Canada should respond.

The federal government plans to open an embassy in Armenia shortly, and Liberal officials often attend Armenian diaspora events.

Canada is sending two officials to support a European mission that is aiming to prevent another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The unarmed European Union mission in Armenia is a project involving a hundred civilian monitors who keep tabs on the security situation at the border with Azerbaijan.

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly has announced that Canada will contribute to the mission and send two recruited experts.

The mission follows heightened tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an area that is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians but is internationally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan.

Joly said in April that she was “deeply concerned” about Azerbaijan escalating the long-running dispute with Armenia over the province by blocking its main access road.

Canada has joined similar European Union missions in the past, with military and civilian projects deployed to places such as Afghanistan and the West Bank.

The move comes just months before Canada aims to open a full embassy in Armenia this fall.

It also follows unconfirmed reports that Canada may loosen its arms embargo against Turkey, which Ottawa barred from receiving weapons after

Canadian sensors showed up in drones Azerbaijan used in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in a 2020 war.

Tensions rose in the area last fall, when the region’s main access road was blocked by groups of Azerbaijanis who insisted they were independent environmental activists opposed to mining.

The Azerbaijan government claims it has no ties to the groups, but others have disputed that assertion.

In recent months, the two countries have lowered the temperature in their long-running dispute, but access to the region is reportedly still limited, affecting the availability of food.

In April 2022, former foreign minister Stephane Dion presented a report to Joly on supporting Armenian democracy, as part of his role as the Liberals’ special envoy for Europe.

The report said Ottawa should prioritize developing Armenia’s “fragile democracy” by helping efforts to fight corruption.

It noted that Russia’s influence in the region is waning as Moscow diverts military resources to its invasion of Ukraine, which has put some of its neighbours on edge.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that “strictly technical” issues remain in resolving one of the main disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, neighbours that fought a war over a contested territory.

Putin met in various formats in Moscow with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, discussing a dispute over a winding road called the Lachin Corridor. That’s the only authorized connection between Armenia and the contested territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, and it’s a lifeline for supplies to the region’s approximately 120,000 people.

Aliyev and Pashinyan, in a broader regional summit meeting Putin hosted in Moscow, lashed out at each other for their positions regarding the land corridor. But Putin said that on the “principal issues, there is an agreement,” and later said all that remained were “surmountable obstacles,” calling them differences in terminology and “strictly technical.” He said representatives of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan would meet in a week to try to resolve the differences.

According to the Russian state news agency Tass, Pashinyan said last Wednesday that Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize each other’s territorial integrity within Soviet administrative borders. It added that on Monday, Pashinyan said the territory of Azerbaijan that his government is ready to recognize includes Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pashinyan said Thursday: “I want to confirm that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity, and on this basis we can say that we are moving quite well towards settlement of our relations.”

For his part, Aliyev said Thursday that the Armenian leader’s statements ensure that “the issue of agreeing on other points of the peace treaty will go much easier, because it was the main factor on which we could not come to an agreement.”

Putin told the leaders a key sign of progress is “an agreement on the fundamental issue of territorial integrity.” He added: “And this is in fact the basis for agreeing on other issues of a secondary nature.”

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 that killed more than 6,000 people. The war ended in a Russia-brokered armistice under which Armenia relinquished territories surrounding the region. Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan, but ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia had controlled the region and surrounding territories since 1994.

The agreement to end the war left the Lachin Corridor as the only authorized connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Russia sent a peacekeeping force of 2,000 troops to maintain order, including ensuring that the Lachin Corridor road remains open. However last December, Azeris claiming to be environmental activists began blocking the road, saying they were protesting illegitimate mining by Armenians. Armenia contends Azerbaijan orchestrated the protests.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly alleged that Armenians have used the Lachin Corridor to bring weapons and ammunition into Nagorno-Karabakh in violation of the armistice terms.

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Troops from Azerbaijan and Armenia exchanged fire with weapons including mortars and drones on their joint border on Friday, killing one soldier from each side two days before top-level talks on a long-term peace deal.

It was the second straight day of exchanges of fire — ahead of Sunday’s planned meeting in Brussels between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.

One Azeri soldier died in Thursday’s hostilities.

The two ex-Soviet states have fought two wars in 30 years focusing on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians.

In a six-month conflict in 2020, Azerbaijan recovered swathes of territory lost in an earlier war that gripped the region amid the collapse of Soviet rule.

In the latest skirmish, Armenia’s Defence Ministry said its forces came under fire with mortars and small arms near the village of Sotk, close to the border. The ministry said drones were also deployed.

In the wake of enemy fire, the Armenian side has one killed in action and one wounded,” the ministry said, adding the exchanges eventually died down.

Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry said it had cut short a drone attack by Armenia on its positions in the Kalbajar district on its side of the border. It later reported that one of its servicemen had been killed and that Azeri troops controlled the situation.

Tensions have risen while efforts intensify to get the two rivals to reach a peace deal despite differences on border demarcation and other issues. Talks have generally been staged under the jurisdiction of the European Union or Russia — which brokered the truce that ended the fighting in 2020.

Foreign ministers from both sides met last week in the United States.

Azerbaijan last month installed a checkpoint at the entry to the Lachin Corridor — the only road linking Armenia to Karabakh — in a move that Yerevan said was a “gross violation” of the 2020 ceasefire.

On Thursday, both sides said they were acting in self-defence and blamed the other for firing first.

Armenia said four of its servicemen had been injured.

Pashinyan said that incident was an attempt by Azerbaijan to disrupt peace talks.

The latest clashes are also seen as a test of Russia’s ability to influence events in the South Caucasus.

Russia is a formal ally of Armenia through a mutual self-defence treaty, but also strives for good relations with Baku. Moscow says the 2020 peace accord it brokered is the only basis for a long-term solution.

Armenia and Azerbaijan will hold talks in the near future on a peace deal to try to settle their long-running differences, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council as saying.

The official, Armen Grigoryan, did not say when, where and at what level the talks would happen.

TASS also reported that Armenia’s defence minister had discussed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, the focus of two wars in the past three decades, with the new commander of Russian peacekeepers in the region.

The mountainous enclave is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but populated by about 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

Azeris identifying themselves as environmental protesters have since Dec. 12 partially blocked the Lachin corridor, the only highway and supply route that runs across Azeri territory which connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan went further last Sunday by setting up a checkpoint on the road, which Armenia called a major breach of a 2020 ceasefire deal. Baku said the move was necessary to stop the route being used to transfer fighters and weapons.

Despite years of attempted mediation between them, the two countries have yet to reach a peace agreement that would settle outstanding issues such as the demarcation of borders and return of prisoners.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has visited Azerbaijan and Armenia in the past two days, urging both sides to undertake confidence-building moves and resume talks on a settlement.

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