KORNIDZOR, Armenia — Tons of humanitarian aid were en route on Saturday to Nagorno-Karabakh under the terms of a deal struck with the breakaway region’s Armenian leadership, Azerbaijan said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Saturday said it had dispatched its first shipment of food and fuel to reach the mountainous territory from Armenia since Azerbaijan launched its military offensive earlier this week. The convoy of four trucks drove across the Hakari Bridge, crossing the border amid warnings of a growing humanitarian crisis among the civilian population.
“We are looking at the different needs of the population,” a spokesperson for the ICRC told POLITICO. “And, underlining our role as a neutral intermediary, we are of course in dialog with all the decision-makers to be able to provide assistance that is much needed.”
The delivery marks only the second time civilian aid will reach Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia since Azerbaijan closed a checkpoint on the internationally recognized border after a firefight with Armenian troops on June 15. The ICRC has previously warned that without access, a humanitarian crisis could quickly unfold — and that situation has only been compounded by reports of mass displacements as Azerbaijani forces took territory inside the ethnic Armenian-held enclave in a 24-hour attack that began on Tuesday.
While the ICRC has been able to transfer wounded people to hospitals inside Nagorno-Karabakh, a mooted evacuation of the injured to Armenia has not yet materialized.
Azerbaijan has since said the local leadership must disband, its soldiers must lay down their weapons, and those living there will have to accept being governed as part of Azerbaijan, or else leave.
A U.S. congressional delegation visited the road leading to the Hakari Bridge moments before the ICRC convoy passed. Addressing reporters, Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said Washington was deeply concerned by the unfolding crisis and called for support for civilians “suffering as a result of the blockade for many months.”
Shortly afterwards, a long convoy of Russian peacekeepers’ vehicles raced down the road toward Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan said that it had dispatched two tanker trucks full of fuel to the de facto capital, Stepanakert. Moscow’s personnel had also been prevented from regularly using the road since June, reportedly only bringing in essentials for their own troops by helicopter.
Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, said the guarantee for humanitarian aid access “once again shows the good intentions and seriousness of the Azerbaijan government to meet the needs and requirements of Armenian residents and also to ensure a safe and decent reintegration process.”
A special government working group has been established, he added, to address the humanitarian, economic and social aspects of absorbing Nagorno-Karabakh and its tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijan after 30 years of self-declared independence. The leadership of the unrecognized state said on Wednesday that it had been forced to accept a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement as its troops were routed. Azerbaijan says Armenian fighters have already begun surrendering their weapons under the terms of the deal.
“Karabakh was a powder keg and the most militarized zone in the world,” Hajiyev added. “But now that is in the past. Under these circumstances, there are much better chances for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
However, concerns remain that tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the crisis-hit region could be forced to flee their homes, with local officials warning of “ethnic cleansing.”
According to Laurence Broers, an expert on the conflict at Chatham House, the question is now whether the apparent goodwill gestures solidify into something more permanent.
“We’ve got to end this stop-start humanitarian aid paradigm,” he said. “We need to have a long-term solution around access and, just as importantly, we have to have concentrated attention so that those who want to get out of Karabakh can still do so.”