Russia's top diplomat says Azerbaijan and Armenia have agreed to a cease-fire and "substantive" peace talks aimed at ending the latest bout of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, the worst violence the region has seen in years.
The announcement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came early on October 10 after 12 hours of talks in Moscow between Lavrov and the foreign ministers from the two South Caucasus nations.
The cease-fire will take effect at 12 p.m. on October 10, Lavrov said, and will allow for the exchange of prisoners and the bodies of people who have been killed in clashes over the last two weeks in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Hundreds of soldiers and an unknown number of civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will be an intermediary in the talks, he said. The sides said the talks would comprise "substantive negotiations with the aim of reaching a peaceful settlement as soon as possible."
There was no immediate confirmation of the plan from either Armenia or Azerbaijan.
However, Baku's foreign ministry released a statement that only detailed the specifics of the cease-fire, but offered no further commentary.
Hours before the cease-fire was to take effect, both sides accused the other of new attacks. Azerbaijan's defense officials asserted that ethnic Armenian forces had shelled populated areas. And Armenia's Defense Ministry alleged that Azerbaijan was continuing to use drones to target Armenian positions.
Earlier, as the foreign ministers began their talks in Moscow, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he was giving Armenia a "last chance" to resolve the conflict peacefully.
"The conflict is now being settled by military means and political means will come next," he warned, saying nearly three decades of international talks "hadn't yielded an inch of progress, we haven't been given back an inch of the occupied lands."
Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan. But it has been under the control of Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire brought an end to a separatist war that broke out as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been populated and governed by ethnic Armenians, leaving hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from the region as internally displaced war refugees for more than a quarter century.
Zaur Shiriyev, a South Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, said there was a "very visible lack of support" from the Azerbaijani population for going back to peace talks in the hope of returning the internally displaced people to their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
In a post to Twitter, Shiriyev said Azerbaijanis "demand" from Aliyev that he "not to return to 'fruitless' talks, but to continue the war, which finally promises real results."
"Therefore, the international calls for cease-fire are broadly seen as an attempt to disrupt Baku's success and do not find support in the Azerbaijani public," Shiriyev says.
The new hostilities — among the largest escalations since 1994 — have increased concern that a wider conflict could drag in regional power Turkey, which is Azerbaijan's closest ally, and Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia.
The defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto government said on October 9 that there was intense fighting to the south of Stepanakert, the region’s largest city.
The previous day, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of shelling a historic cathedral perched on a strategic clifftop in Shushi (known as Susa in Azeri), just a few kilometers south of Stepanakert.
Residents of the town said the Holy Savior Cathedral sustained exterior and interior damage after being hit twice within several hours.
Also known as the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, the 19th century building is part of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Russia's Health Ministry said two Russians wounded in shelling were airlifted to Moscow on October 9 and were in satisfactory condition.