Ceasefire monitoring centre in Nagorno-Karabakh shuts as Russian peacekeepers withdraw

By Thomson Reuters Apr 26, 2024 | 8:36 AM

By Nailia Bagirova

AGDAM, Azerbaijan (Reuters) – The Russian and Turkish flags were lowered on Friday to mark the closure of a centre set up to monitor a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Russian peacekeepers ended a multi-year deployment in the strategic South Caucasus region.

Nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops were dispatched to the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020 under a Moscow-brokered deal that halted six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces.

Despite the deployment, Azerbaijan retook Karabakh by force in September last year, a move which triggered an exodus of at least 100,000 ethnic Armenians living there and the arrest of the breakaway area’s ethnic Armenian leaders.

Armenia’s political leadership accused Moscow at the time of failing to protect Armenian interests, a charge Russia rejected.

Russia announced earlier this month that its peacekeepers were leaving Karabakh and other regions, ending a deployment that was set to run until 2025.

Military officials from Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan attended Friday’s ceremony at the monitoring centre, located near the ghost city of Agdam in a part of Karabakh controlled by Baku since 2020.

Dozens of Russian and Turkish peacekeepers dressed in military fatigues as well as Azeri soldiers sat in folding chairs under the open sky and watched a traditional Azeri dance performance.

Sergei Istrakov, deputy chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, praised the friendship between Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan in a speech to the assembled crowd.

“On behalf of the minister of defence and the chief of the general staff, I express my gratitude to the servicemen of Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, who worthily performed their military duty in the name of peace and tranquillity throughout the South Caucasus,” Istrakov said.

“The successful work of the centre, based on mutual respect and the primacy of international humanitarian law, made it possible to complete the peacekeeping operation ahead of schedule.”

Azerbaijan’s national anthem was then played before the Russian and Turkish flags were lowered to the sound of their own respective national anthems.

Nearly all of the Russian peacekeeping contingent has already left the region, and the rest are due to go by the end of May, a source at Azerbaijan’s defence ministry told Reuters.

All of their armoured vehicles, including 90 armoured personnel carriers (BTR82A) and 380 other vehicles, had already left Azerbaijan’s territory, the source added.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been inching towards a peace deal to end the conflict over Karabakh, which dates to 1988, three years before the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Yerevan agreed to return several villages to Baku last week in what both sides said was an important milestone, although the move has proved unpopular in Armenia, where it triggered anti-government protests this week.

(Reporting by Reuters in Agdam; Writing by Lucy Papachristou in London; editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)