Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev says he is giving Armenia a "last chance" to resolve a conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh as his country will reclaim the territory "either via peace or by war."
Speaking in a televised address to the nation on October 9 as the countries began their first high-level talks after nearly two weeks of clashes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev said Baku was giving Armenia “a chance to settle the conflict peacefully,” though he is not willing to make concessions to Armenia.
“The conflict is now being settled by military means and political means will come next,” he warned, saying nearly three decades of international talks “haven'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 the 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, says there is a “very visible lack of support” from the Azerbaijani population for going back to peace talks in the hope of returning the country's internally displaced people to their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Shiriyev says Azerbaijanis “demand” from Aliyev “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.
Renewed clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on September 27. The fighting, which has involved the use of heavy artillery, warplanes, and drones, has continued despite numerous international calls for a cease-fire.
Aliyev's fiery speech came as the foreign ministers of the two countries prepared to sit down with their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for Russia-mediated talks in Moscow.
“It has begun," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Facebook, posting a picture of the three ministers sitting at a table.
Russia's Interfax news agency reported the talks lasted more than two hours.
The hostilities -- the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict since a shaky cease-fire was reached in 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.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on October 9 that Azerbaijan's offensive would not stop until Armenia withdrew its own forces and other fighters he said it had brought to the region.
"Until the occupation is over, until the terrorists and mercenaries are taken out of there, nobody should expect our Azeri brothers to stop," Akar said.
In an October 9 interview with CNN, Aliyev called on countries to “stay away” from the conflict so that it doesn't escalate into a wider war.
He also praised Turkey for providing diplomatic support to Baku and for playing “a stabilizing role in the region and in particular in the situation with respect to the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged a pause in hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone in order for the two sides to exchange prisoners and the bodies of those killed in the fighting.
Putin raised the possibility of a pause in the fighting after a series of telephone conversations with Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, the Kremlin’s press service said in a statement on October 8.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian leader did not intend to meet with the visiting Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers.
Meanwhile, the French presidency said that Armenia and Azerbaijan were moving "towards a truce" to end the fighting, with a deal expected late in the day or on October 10.
"We are moving towards a truce tonight or tomorrow but it's still fragile," President Emmanuel Macron's office told AFP.
France, along with Russia and the United States, is cochair of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group that has been mediating in the conflict since the early 1990s.
Officials from the three countries have been holding talks in Geneva to try to halt the fighting and avert a wider war in the South Caucasus.
Meanwhile, the defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto government said on October 9 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 are in satisfactory condition.