TBILISI (Reuters) -Russia expressed concern on Thursday over escalating tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a key road linking Armenia to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave remained blocked for the fourth day.
The two countries have fought repeated wars over Nagorno-Karabakh – internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but home to about 120,000 ethnic Armenians – since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. As recently as September, more than 200 soldiers were killed in a flare-up of fighting.
A group of Azerbaijanis claiming to be environmental activists blocked the Lachin corridor, the only land route for people, goods, food and medical supplies to reach Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia across Azerbaijani territory, at the start of this week.
Reuters video showed a crowd of people, many carrying Azerbaijani flags, blocking the road on Thursday in a peaceful standoff with Russian troops from a 5,000-strong mission deployed to the region after the last round of war in 2020.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the closure of the passage was a “gross violation” of that year’s peace agreement between Baku and Yerevan and that the population of the enclave had been made into hostages.
Armenia says the protesters have been dispatched by the Azerbaijani government in an attempt to block Armenia’s access to the region.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said it was the Russian peacekeeping force that closed the route. It said the activists were involved in a genuine protest over illegal Armenian mining in Nagorno-Karabakh.
They were expressing “rightful dissatisfaction of the Azerbaijani public with the illegal economic activity, looting of natural resources, and damage to the environment”, it said.
The statement accused Armenia of numerous breaches of agreements between the two sides, including the placement of landmines which it said had killed 45 people since 2020.
TEST FOR MOSCOW
The standoff is a test of Russia’s authority as the main security guarantor in the region at a time when its struggles in the war in Ukraine risk undermining its top-dog status among former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressed Moscow’s concern over the situation and said it expected the route to be cleared soon. She said it was “unacceptable and counter-productive” to blame the Russian peacekeepers for the situation.
“Russia’s defence ministry and the Russian peacekeeping contingent have been actively working to de-escalate the situation and we expect full transport links to be restored in the very near future,” Zakharova told reporters.
Russia is an ally of Armenia through a mutual self-defence pact, but tries to maintain warm relations with Azerbaijan and has rejected calls by Yerevan to provide military support.
The U.S. State Department and European Union both urged Azerbaijan this week to unblock the Lachin corridor, with Washington saying its closure “has severe humanitarian implications and sets back the peace process”.
(Reporting by Jake Cordell; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Andrew Heavens)