President Ilham Aliyev has denied reports that Azerbaijan allegedly blockaded the Lachin-Khankendi road.
President Aliyev made the comments during a phone conversation with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday and said that what had been reported does not reflect the situation on the ground.
The president revealed the total number of Russian peacekeeping and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) vehicles that have passed through the road since December 12, 2022, when Azerbaijani eco-activists, civil society members, and volunteers gathered there to protest illegal mining in Azerbaijan's Karabakh economic region.
A total of 980 vehicles traveled on the Lachin-Khankendi road over that time, according to President Aliyev, of which over 850 belonged to the Russian peacekeepers, while more than 120 were from the ICRC. He also added that about 90 sick persons and those in need of medical assistance had been transferred to Armenia by the ICRC relief convoys during the same period.
“These facts demonstrate that Azerbaijan did not close the Lachin-Khankendi road,” President.Az quoted Aliyev as saying.
The president called for an immediate end to illegal mining activities in Azerbaijani territories and the creation of permanent conditions for the monitoring of the mineral deposits by Azerbaijan.
For his part, US Secretary of State Blinken reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to normalization of the Armenia-Azerbaijan relations and support for the peace treaty talks. President Aliyev said the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace deal must include only the normalization of bilateral relations based on norms and principles of international law and five principles proposed by Azerbaijan.
Armenia and Azerbaijan had long been at odds over the latter’s Karabakh (Garabagh) region. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Armenia launched full-blown military aggression against Azerbaijan, marking the longest and deadliest war in the South Caucasus region. The bloody war ended with a ceasefire in 1994 and saw Armenia forcibly occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories. Over 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed, nearly 4,000 went missing, and one million were expelled from those lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing policy conducted by Armenia.
On September 27, 2020, the decades-old conflict between the two countries spiraled after Armenia’s forces deployed in occupied Azerbaijani lands shelled military positions and civilian settlements of Azerbaijan. During counter-attack operations, Azerbaijani forces liberated over 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha. The war ended in a statement signed on November 10, 2020, under which Armenia returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan.
Shortly after the war, the Azerbaijani authorities voiced readiness and determination to launch negotiations with Armenia that would ultimately bring the long-awaited peace to the region. In February 2022, Baku submitted a proposal containing five basic principles to Armenia. These principles highlight the key issues related to the peace negotiations between the two countries, including mutual recognition of respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, inviolability of internationally recognized borders; mutual confirmation of the absence of territorial claims against each other; obligation to refrain in interstate relations from undermining the security of each other; delimitation and demarcation of the state border; and unblocking of the transportation and other communications.
The Azerbaijani authorities said Yerevan did not respond to the proposals for basic principles delaying the signing of the peace treaty and paving the way for illegal activities in the Azerbaijani lands settled by Armenians, including illegal mining.
Since December 3, 2022, a group of experts from Azerbaijan’s Economy Ministry and Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry, and the State Property Service under the Ministry of Economy and AzerGold Company, held negotiations with the command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent on the illegal exploitation of mineral deposits, as well as on environmental and other secondary consequences in the Azerbaijani territories under its temporary monitoring. As a result of consecutive meetings on December 3 and 4, the two sides agreed to ecological monitoring by the Azerbaijani experts at the Gizilbulag gold and Demirli copper-molybdenum deposits.
However, on December 10, the visit of the representatives of Azerbaijan to the deposits was derailed in the wake of illegal intervention by ethnic Armenians living in certain parts of Azerbaijan's Karabakh region. Back then, the Russian peacekeepers did not take preventive measures to facilitate the previously agreed visit of the Azerbaijani experts.
This led the Azerbaijani ecological activists, civil society members and volunteers to protest along the Lachin-Khankendi road on December 12.
The peaceful protest of Azerbaijanis on the highway has been biasedly interpreted by Armenia's authorities and media outlets as a “blockage” of the road and a subsequent “humanitarian crisis” in the Armenian-inhabited part of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. However, the Azerbaijani government and media have come forth with evidence proving that the Lachin-Khankendi road is used freely by the Russian peacekeepers for humanitarian cargo shipments, as well as for ambulances and civilians. Protesters have not hindered the humanitarian traffic on the road and even provided a hotline number to address the appeals of the Armenian citizens of Azerbaijan. On January 17, Russian peacekeepers conveyed on the vehicles 26 Armenian civilians, including 20 teenagers, to the Karabakh region through the Lachin-Khankendi road. The teenagers were said to be on their way back from a sports competition held in Armenia.