Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a cease-fire in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which came into effect at noon local time on Saturday following 10 hours of talks between diplomats in Moscow hosted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Since September 27, more than 400 people have been killed in fighting over the contested region. Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but under control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994.
Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov, agreed to a cease-fire "on humanitarian grounds for exchanging POWs and other detained persons and dead bodies," according to a statement read out by Lavrov.
Armenia and Azerbaijan also agreed to "start substantive talks aimed at the quickly reaching a peaceful solution," Lavrov added.
Shelling in Stepanakert
Less than two hours before the cease-fire was due to begin, the Armenian human rights ombudsman, Artak Beglaryan, wrote on Twitter that Azerbaijani shelling had been experienced.
"Azerbaijan a few mins ago again struck Stepanakert civilian areas with missiles. No data on casualties yet," he wrote.
At the same time, Armenian forces were heavily shelling civilian areas of Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.
"Armenian armed forces are intensively shelling populated areas in Geranboy, Terter, Agdam, Agjaberdi, and Fizuli districts. Azerbaijan is taking reciprocal measures," the ministry said in a statement.
Minsk Group to mediate negotiations
The cease-fire deal puts a hold on a conflict that has threatened to spin out of control, potentially pitting Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, against Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia.
The European Union, Russia and the United States have all called for the fighting to stop and for peace talks to be mediated by representatives from France, Russia and the United States, known as the Minsk Group
The group was created in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh amid a full-blown war that killed at least 30,000 people and ended without a peace treaty in 1994.
Saturday's statement indicated that negotiations moving forward would be mediated by the Minsk Group.
Azerbaijan still skeptical
As talks got underway Friday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev gave a defiant address on domestic television, saying that the nearly three decades of international talks had not "yielded an inch of progress" and that Azerbaijan had not "been given back an inch of the occupied lands."
"Mediators and leaders of some international organizations have stated that there is no military solution to the conflict,'' Aliyev said.
"I have disagreed with the thesis, and I have been right. The conflict is now being settled by military means and political means will come next."
ed,wmr/dj (AP, dpa Reuters)