Azerbaijan has set up a checkpoint on the only road in or out of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking fears for its ethnic Armenian population and reports of new firefights along the shared border.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that work had begun to “establish control” along the Lachin corridor, the sole highway that links the breakaway territory to Armenia.
According to officials, the move is intended to stop “the rotation of personnel of Armenian armed forces that continue to be illegally stationed in the territory of Azerbaijan, the transfer of weapons and ammunition, entrance of terrorists, as well as illicit trafficking of natural resources.”
Following a war between the two sides over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the Lachin corridor has been under the jurisdiction of Russian peacekeeping forces as part of a Moscow-backed ceasefire agreement. In December, self-described Azerbaijani environmental activists, with the support of the government in Baku, pushed past the wire fencing and began blocking the road as part of what they claimed was a protest over illegal mining.
Since then, only peacekeepers and aid convoys operated by the Red Cross have been able to get supplies through to the tens of thousands of Armenians who call the region home. Rationing of food and energy has been implemented. Russian troops have been unable or unwilling to restore the flow of civilian traffic, and appeared to take no action against the installation of the checkpoint on Sunday. According to Baku, its personnel will take control of the road “in interaction” with Moscow’s forces.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said the move was a “flagrant violation” of the 2020 ceasefire, in which Baku agreed to “guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin corridor.” According to Yerevan, the checkpoint also breaches a call from the International Court of Justice for Azerbaijan to “take all measures at its disposal” to ensure the “unimpeded” flow of traffic.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the development and urged Azerbaijan to ensure “free and open movement of people and commerce on the Lachin corridor.”
Inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, Nagorno-Karabakh has been under Armenian control since a war that followed the collapse of the USSR.
However, the installation of a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor would effectively end its de facto autonomy, which Armenia has warned could be a precursor to “ethnic cleansing.”
Baku insists it has the right to exert control over the territory, and has called on Armenians living there to lay down their weapons and accept being governed by Azerbaijan.
Later on Sunday, the two former Soviet republics accused each other of launching attacks along the border, close to the Lachin corridor. At least one Armenian servicemen was reported to have died.
Azerbaijan insists its troops took “adequate retaliatory measures.”