Even though Russia has helped broker an uneasy truce between the countries, residents fear renewed violence.
Talysh, Azerbaijan: Elmira Bagiryan was leaving her village, at the epicentre of four days of fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces, even though the gunfire had stopped.
“We are afraid that the shooting will begin again,” she said as she prepared to get into a car laden with carpets, pillows, blankets and furniture from her home.
The village of Talysh was briefly occupied by Azeri troops during four days of battles over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, which subsided on the afternoon of April 5, when both sides agreed a ceasefire.
Russia said it had played a lead role in brokering a halt to the violence, hosting a meeting between military chiefs from Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The fighting was the most intense since a war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s and raised fears of a return to all-out conflict in a region that serves as a corridor for pipelines taking oil and gas to world markets.
The guns had fallen silent in Talysh, a few kilometres (miles) from the Azeri town of Barda on the northernmost edge of separatist-held territory, on Wednesday afternoon. Ethnic Armenian troops, firmly back in control, milled around, smiling.
There were signs, though, of the ferocity of the fighting of previous days. Several houses had been destroyed by shell fire. The hulk of a burned out car lay by the road. Nearby were the carcasses of several dead cows.
Bagiryan, a grey-haired ethnic Armenian in her early 60s, said three villagers had been killed.
Close to tears, she said she had spent days and nights in the cellar of a neighbour’s house, taking refuge from the shelling.
Quiet had returned on Tuesday when the ceasefire was agreed, but she planned to leave all the same.
Other residents also were using the lull as an opportunity to get out. Cars and trucks loaded with belongings were heading away from the front line.
Old tensions erupt
The previous war between the two ex-Soviet states killed thousands on both sides and displaced hundreds of thousands.
It ended with a truce in 1994, although there have been sporadic flare-ups since. The ceasefire was shattered over the weekend, with Azerbaijan’s army and the Armenian-backed separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh exchanging heavy fire using artillery, tanks, rocket systems and helicopters. Dozens of soldiers were killed.
On the other side of the front line to the village of Talysh, in an area under the control of Azerbaijan’s authorities, there was no fighting on Wednesday. But there too was destruction from the previous days’ clashes.
Amina Suleimanly, a 46-year-old teacher from the village of Akhmetagaly, said since Saturday residents had been cowering in the internal courtyards of their homes to shelter from shells coming from separatist positions a few kilometres away.
“They were shooting without pause,” she told a Reuters reporter who visited the village.
A house next to hers was hit by artillery fire and destroyed, though it was unoccupied at the time. She said one local man was killed when some ordnance exploded.
Speaking at a meeting in Berlin with Armenia’s president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said urgent efforts were needed to make sure the ceasefire would last.
“Above all, everything must be done such that more blood is not spilled and lives lost,” Merkel said.
Mediation in the conflict has for years been assigned jointly to envoys from France, Russia and the US. But Moscow has stepped up its diplomatic role in the past few days.
Officials from both sides said the truce was agreed at a meeting in Moscow between the chiefs of staff of the Azeri and Armenian militaries. The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had telephoned the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia to urge them to agree a ceasefire.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were both heading to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the next few days.
Russia does not have the same direct interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as it does in other territorial disputes in the former Soviet Union. In Georgia and Ukraine, it provided direct support to separatists.
However, its active diplomacy over the past few days is consistent with a push by the Kremlin to assert its influence, especially in places where the administration of US President Barack Obama has elected to take a more low-key role.