U.S., Egypt working closely to reinforce Gaza ceasefire, Blinken says

By Aidan Lewis and Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -Egypt and the United States said they would work together to reinforce a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo and Amman on Wednesday on a regional tour.

Egypt has longstanding relations with both sides in the conflict and played a key role in brokering the ceasefire after 11 days of violence, in coordination with the United States.

“We’ve had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly,” Blinken said in Cairo after meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

The United States and Egypt were now “working closely together build something positive,” he said. Egypt, Blinken said, is vital to shared aspirations for Palestinians and Israelis to “live in safety and security to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity.”

Egyptian mediation in the conflict has raised questions whether Cairo might now feel under less U.S. pressure over its crackdown on political dissent that has steadily intensified in recent years.

Asked about the matter at a press conference later in the Jordanian capital Amman, Blinken said he had a “lengthy discussion” with Sisi on Cairo’s human rights record and the issue of detained American citizens.

“I think the fact that we had a lengthy exchange on that with President Sisi is a reflection of the fact that it remains very much on the agenda with Egypt,” Blinken said.

Sisi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, has said there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that stability and security are paramount.

Blinken said he also discussed with Sisi Egypt’s water needs and the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt regards the dam as a potentially existential threat as the largely arid country relies on the Nile for as much as 90% of its fresh water.

GAZA AID

Blinken arrived in Egypt after stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Tuesday, when he pledged that the United States would provide new aid to help rebuild the Gaza Strip, including $5.5 million in disaster relief and nearly $33 million for the U.N. Palestinian aid agency there, after hundreds of devastating Israeli air strikes.

Speaking in Amman, he said Washington intended to ensure that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza and is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, did not benefit from humanitarian aid.

“In the coming days I’ll be consulting broadly with Gulf countries and other partners to ensure we all contribute to recovery, stability and the reduction of tensions,” he said.

Yehya Al-Sinwar, the Hamas chief in Gaza, said the group welcomed Arab and international efforts to rebuild the enclave.

“We will ease and facilitate the task for everyone and we will make sure that the process will be transparent and fair and we will make sure that no penny goes to Hamas or Qassam (the Hamas armed wing),” Sinwar told a news conference.

“We have satisfactory sources of money for Hamas and Qassam. A major part of it from Iran and part in donations from Arabs, Muslims and liberals of the world who are sympathetic to our people and their rights,” he added.

Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and has security contacts with Hamas, is likely to have a role in channeling aid, a senior U.S. State Department official said earlier.

During the fighting, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and its Sinai Peninsula in order to provide medical aid and evacuate the wounded.

It also sent a security delegation to Israel and Gaza to help bolster the ceasefire after it took effect on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel and Hamas to observe Gaza truce from 2 a.m. on Friday

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel and Hamas will cease fire across the Gaza Strip border as of 2 a.m. on Friday (2300 GMT Thursday), a Hamas official and Israeli media said, bringing a potentially tenuous halt to the fiercest fighting in decades.

The reports came a day after U.S. President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek de-escalation, and amid mediation bids by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.

A Hamas official told Reuters the ceasefire would be “mutual and simultaneous.”

Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet approved the truce on the basis of what one official reportedly called “quiet in exchange for quiet.” Israeli cabinet spokesmen had no immediate comment.

Rocket attacks by Hamas and allied Islamic Jihad had resumed after an eight-hour pause on Thursday, as Israel continued shelling that it said aimed to destroy the factions’ military capabilities and deter them from future confrontation after the current conflict.

Since the fighting began on May 10, health officials in Gaza say 232 Palestinians, including 65 children and 39 women, have been killed and more than 1,900 wounded in aerial bombardments. Israel says it has killed at least 160 combatants in Gaza.

Authorities put the death toll in Israel at 12, with hundreds of people treated for injuries in rocket attacks that have caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters.

On Thursday, Biden discussed Gaza with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the White House said reports of moves toward a ceasefire were “encouraging.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric confirmed that U.N. Middle East Envoy Tor Wennesland is in Qatar, adding: “We are actively engaged with all the relevant parties for an immediate ceasefire.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv and Andrea Shalal aboard Air Force One; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Aidan Lewis in Cairo; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Philippa Fletcher, Giles Elgood and Andrew Heavens)

Battle for Yemen’s Marib scrambles U.S. push for truce

By Jonathan Landay and Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – The battle for Yemen’s gas-rich Marib region is complicating U.S. efforts to reach a ceasefire needed to end a six-year-old war and secure a foreign policy win for President Joe Biden, two sources familiar with the talks and a diplomat said.

A U.N./U.S. peace initiative presented by Saudi Arabia in March proposed a nationwide ceasefire and the reopening of air and sea links, to bolster efforts to end a devastating conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Riyadh, which leads a military coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi movement, has been under increasing pressure to end the war since Biden signaled Washington would no longer support the intervention and as the United Nations warns of looming famine.

But the initiative has been stuck since Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis made a series of counter-proposals, including for a phased truce that could allow them sufficient time to seize Marib, the Saudi-backed government’s last northern stronghold.

Potentially crippling the peace initiative, fighting has intensified in recent days as the Houthis push their offensive to take Marib, which if successful would strengthen the movement’s hand in any future political negotiations.

“Probably the Houthis, given a choice between a ceasefire and taking Marib, would choose to take Marib,” said a senior diplomat based in the region.

The peace initiative can only be saved by a “mutually hurting stalemate” in which Houthi losses reach a point where they lose tribal support, the diplomat said, adding the group has replaced seasoned fighters lost to coalition bombs with inexperienced youth.

BLOCKADE

U.S. envoy Tim Lenderking and U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths have been touring the region for discussions to try to break the deadlock and secure a ceasefire, but so far without success.

The U.N./U.S. initiative would reopen Sanaa airport, and allow fuel and food imports through Hodeidah port, both of which are controlled by the Houthis. But the movement said last month that these steps would not go far enough.

Two people involved in the talks told Reuters the main issue now is sequencing, since the Houthis insist on a full lifting of the blockade followed by a gradual ceasefire: a halt to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and coalition airstrikes on Yemen, and then a truce with Yemen’s government.

Coalition airstrikes are the only thing keeping Marib, home to major oil and gas fields, from falling, since Houthi forces, now 15 km (9 miles) west of the city, have more advanced weaponry than pro-government troops, military sources said.

Hundreds of fighters from both sides have been killed in the desert plain, but military and local sources say the Houthis have lost more in the war’s most deadly clashes since 2018.

The Houthis, who seized swathes of Yemen’s conventional military when they ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014, have sent thousands of fighters to the Kasara and Mushaja areas near Marib city whose terrain provides some cover, pro-government military and local sources said.

The fighting has displaced some 13,600 people in the region since February, according to the United Nations, which said four displacement camps were shut after being hit by shelling, injuring dozens and compounding overcrowding.

Marib hosts a quarter of Yemen’s four million refugees.

The war has killed tens of thousands of people in Yemen, and caused what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with millions facing famine.

But Saudi Arabia has also felt the impact of the war. It has faced a barrage of Houthi drone and missile strikes, and is seeking security guaranties along its border as it tries to contain the influence of arch-rival Iran.

‘KNOCKOUT BLOW’

Saudi and Iranian officials discussed Yemen during direct talks this month aimed at easing tensions, six years after diplomatic ties were severed, sources said.

Michael Knights, an expert on Gulf military affairs with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Saudi Arabia has enough reserves of U.S.-supplied precision-guided munitions to keep defending Marib, but time remained a factor.

The Houthis, who already control most big urban centres, have a window of time to press their offensive during hazy summer weather that reduces coalition air operations.

“If the Houthis take it, they’re going to take it in the next three months,” Knights said, adding that the group is advancing in pulses to seize ground and reinforce positions.

“The Houthis view Marib as a knockout blow. It makes them into a state with resources, a coastline, and most of the population. Whereas if you’re (Saudi-allied Yemeni president) Hadi, it knocks you out of the game,” he added.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai, Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Aden; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)

Afghan government, Taliban announce breakthrough deal to pursue peace talks

By Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan government and Taliban representatives said on Wednesday they had reached a preliminary deal to press on with peace talks, their first written agreement in 19 years of war and welcomed by the United Nations and Washington.

The agreement lays out the way forward for further discussion but is considered a breakthrough because it will allow negotiators to move on to more substantive issues, including talks on a ceasefire.

“The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda,” Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters.

The Taliban spokesman confirmed the same on Twitter.

The agreement comes after months of talks in Doha, the capital of Qatar, encouraged by the United States, while the two sides are still at war, with Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces continuing unabated.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that the two sides had agreed on a “three-page agreement codifying rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire”.

Taliban insurgents refused to agree to a ceasefire during the preliminary stages of talks, despite calls from Western capitals and global bodies, saying that that would be taken up only when the way forward for talks was agreed upon.

“This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. A U.S.-backed government has held power in Afghanistan since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

Under a February deal, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has looked to hasten the withdrawal, despite criticism, saying he wanted to see all American soldiers home by Christmas to end America’s longest war.

The Trump administration has since announced that there would be a sharp drawdown by January, but at least 2,500 troops would remain beyond then.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday warned NATO against withdrawing troops prematurely and said it should “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”.

UN envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons welcomed the “positive development” on Twitter, adding that “this breakthrough should be a springboard to reach the peace wanted by all Afghans”.

Last month, an agreement reached between Taliban and government negotiators was held up at the last minute after the insurgents balked at the document’s preamble because it mentioned the Afghan government by name.

A European Union diplomat familiar with the process said that both sides had kept some contentious issues on the side to deal with separately.

“Both sides also know that Western powers are losing patience and aid has been conditional… so both sides know they have to move forward to show some progress,” said the diplomat, requesting anonymity.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul, and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. and France play catch-up on Karabakh after Russia deploys troops

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Nvard Hovhannisyan

MOSCOW/YELPIN, Armenia (Reuters) – France and the United States are expected to send diplomats to Moscow soon to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia said on Thursday, two days after the Kremlin deployed troops to the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan to secure a truce.

The arrival on Tuesday of the peacekeepers to oversee the ceasefire between Azeri troops and ethnic Armenian forces in the enclave extends Russia’s military footprint among the former Soviet republics it views as its strategic back yard.

Moscow co-chairs an international group overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Washington and Paris, but they were not involved in the deal signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to end six weeks of fighting over the enclave.

“By no means do we want to distance ourselves from our American and French colleagues,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “Moreover, we have invited them to Moscow. They will arrive within the next few days to discuss how they can contribute to the implementation of the achieved agreements.”

The accord, which locked in territorial gains by Azeri troops against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, triggered protests in Armenia calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan when it was announced early on Tuesday.

Hundreds of protesters rallied for a third day in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Thursday chanting “Nikol is a traitor!”. They then marched to the Security Service headquarters to demand the release of some opposition leaders and activists detained on Wednesday.

Pashinyan, elected in 2018 after street protests against alleged corruption ousted the former elite, said on Thursday he had signed the accord to secure peace and save lives.

Armenians living nearer to Nagorno-Karabakh, which has reported more than 1,300 losses among its fighters, had mixed feelings but welcomed the small columns of Russian peacekeepers making their way to the enclave on Thursday.

“We are happy that peacekeepers came but at the same time we are sad that we are giving up that territory,” Armen Manjoyan, a 45-year-old driver, said outside the Armenian village of Yelpin between Yerevan and the Azeri border.

“We all fought for it, but it turned out in vain,” he said. “I think it was not the right decision.”

Turkey, which has backed Azerbaijan over the conflict, signed a protocol with Russia on Wednesday to establish a joint centre to coordinate efforts to monitor the peace deal, agreed after three previous ceasefire attempts quickly broke down.

The details of the monitoring have yet to be worked out and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Russian officials were due in Ankara on Friday to discuss them.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which now joins eight other former Soviet republics where Russia has a military presence. Moscow has military bases in five neighboring states as well as troops in regions which have broken away from three others.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in YELPIN, Nailia Bagirova in BAKU and Margarita Antidze in TBILISI and Alexander Marrow in MOSCOW; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Alison Williams)

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises

By Nailia Bagirova and Nvard Hovhannisyan

BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) – Hopes of a humanitarian ceasefire ending fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh sank further on Thursday as the death toll mounted and Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of launching new attacks.

Armenia accused Turkey of blocking flights carrying emergency aid from using its airspace, and Azerbaijan’s president warned of “new victims and new bloodshed” from fighting over the mountain enclave that broke out on Sept. 27.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev demanded that Armenia “halt attempts to capture liberated territories back” and said his country would take all regions of Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia “acts negatively.”

Last Saturday’s ceasefire, aimed at letting the sides swap detainees and bodies of those killed in the clashes, has had little impact on the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

In the deadliest flare-up since a 1990s war killed about 30,000 people, 604 Nagorno-Karabakh defense personnel have been killed, ethnic Armenian authorities say.

On Thursday, three Azeri civilians were killed and three were wounded during a funeral in Azerbaijan’s Terter region when an artillery shell fell on a cemetery, presidential aid Hikmet Hajiyev said on Twitter.

That would add to Azeri estimates provided on Wednesday that 43 civilians had so far been killed. Baku does not disclose military casualties. The prosecutor’s office said earlier on Thursday that two civilians had been wounded in shelling of the Aghdam area.

The Armenian prosecutor-general’s office said Azeri drones had killed two soldiers in the Vardenis region of Armenia on Wednesday, raising the Armenian military death toll to five. The servicemen were not involved in military action, it said.

A tweet from Nagorno-Karabakh’s ombudsman accused Azerbaijan of using heavy rockets to target civilian infrastructure in the town of Stepanakert.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS

International organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have warned that the conflict, coming on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, could leave tens of thousands of people in need of aid over coming months.

Zareh Sinanyan, Armenian High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, said the delivery of 100 tonnes of aid from the United States was being delayed as Turkey had prohibited Armenia-bound humanitarian aid flights over its airspace.

Armenia’s civil aviation committee was told on Wednesday the Qatar Airways flight from Los Angeles was cancelled but gave no reasons, said the committee’s head, Tatevik Revazyan.

“We have grounds to claim that Turkey closed the air route deliberately,” Revazyan told Reuters, adding alternative routes over Russia or Georgia were being sought.

Turkey’s foreign ministry, which handles airspace issues, was not immediately available to comment.

Aside from humanitarian concerns, fears are growing of Russia and Turkey being sucked in. Turkey’s military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, data shows, and Armenia has a defense pact with Russia.

In a phone call on Wednesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin expressed concerns about the participation of Middle East fighters in the conflict, though Turkey and Azerbaijan deny the presence of such fighters.

The fighting is also close to Azeri pipelines which carry natural gas and oil to international markets. Aliyev accused Armenia on Wednesday of trying to attack the pipelines, a charge that Armenia denied.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Jonathan Spicer in Ankara; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Humanitarian crisis feared as Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire buckles

By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova

YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other on Tuesday of violating a ceasefire agreed three days ago to quell fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, drawing warnings from international groups of a humanitarian crisis in the region.

The Russia-brokered truce is buckling despite mounting calls from world powers to halt the fighting, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Minsk Group security watchdog among those urging greater commitment to the ceasefire terms.

A Reuters cameraman witnessed shelling in the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but governed and populated by ethnic Armenians.

A Reuters television crew in Terter in Azerbaijan also said the city center was being shelled earlier on Tuesday.

Azerbaijan accused Armenian forces of “grossly violating the humanitarian truce”, which was agreed on Saturday to allow the sides to swap prisoners and bodies of those killed..

Defense ministry spokesman Vagif Dargiahly said Armenia was shelling the Azeri territories of Goranboy and Aghdam, as well as Terter. Azeri forces were not violating the truce, he added.

Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan denied the accusation. She said Azeri forces had resumed military operations after an overnight lull, “supported by active artillery fire in the southern, northern, northeastern and eastern directions”.

The fighting which erupted on Sept. 27, is the worst since a 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh that killed about 30,000.

It is being closely watched abroad, not only due to its proximity to Azeri energy pipelines to Europe but also because of fears that Russia and Turkey could be drawn in.

Russia has a defense pact with Armenia and Turkey is allied with Azerbaijan.

“CATASTROPHIC CONSEQUENCES”

The Minsk Group called on the Armenian and Azeri leaders to immediately implement the ceasefire to prevent “catastrophic consequences for the region”.

The 11-member group includes both Russia and Turkey, but the latter is not involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested holding talks that would include Turkey.

Ceasefire demands were “reasonable,” according to Cavusoglu, but he said the international community should ask Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory.

“Sadly no such call is being made,” he told reporters.

Influential Turkish politician Devlet Bahceli, whose party supports President Erdogan’s AKP in parliament, took a more belligerent note, telling Azerbaijan to secure Nagorno-Karabakh by “hitting Armenia over the head over and over again.”

While Turkey denies military involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian told Germany’s Bild newspaper Ankara’s behavior was worrying.

“I worry because, firstly, there is a third party involved. If it were only about Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, I would be much more hopeful that the conflict can be contained,” he said.

DEAD AND WOUNDED

The death toll has risen further, meanwhile. Nagorno-Karabakh officials said 542 servicemen had been killed so far, up 17 from Monday.

Azerbaijan has reported 42 Azeri civilian deaths and 206 wounded since Sept. 27. It has not disclosed military casualties.

Martin Schuepp, Eurasia regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said his organization was in “continuous discussions” to facilitate the handover of detainees or bodies of those killed.

But the security situation meant “it has not been possible for us to access all locations that might have been affected,” Schuepp said.

The conflict is also worsening the spread of COVID-19, World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a United Nations briefing in Geneva.

Armenia’s new cases had doubled over the past 14 days as of Monday, while new infections were up approximately 80% over the past week in Azerbaijan, Jasarevic said. He warned of “direct disruption to health care and a further burden on health systems that are already stretched during the COVID pandemic.”

With tens of thousands of people potentially needing help in coming months, the ICRC is appealing for another 9.2 million Swiss francs ($10.10 million) to fund its humanitarian efforts in the region, Schuepp said.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Riham Alkousaa in Berlin, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Jonathan Spicer in Ankara; Writing by Sujata Rao; Editing by Giles Elgood, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire strained by new fighting reports

By Nailia Bagirova and Nvard Hovhannisyan

BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) – Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces accused each other on Monday of launching new attacks in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, increasing strains on a two-day old humanitarian ceasefire intended to end heavy fighting over the mountain enclave.

Russia, which brokered the ceasefire, appealed for both sides to respect it and Luxembourg reiterated European Union calls for Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, to do more to secure an end to hostilities that have killed hundreds of people.

The fighting, the deadliest over Nagorno-Karabakh in over 25 years, is being watched closely abroad partly because of the proximity of the fighting to Azeri gas and oil pipelines and the risk of regional powers Turkey and Russia being dragged in.

Both Ankara and Moscow are under growing pressure to use their influence in the region to end the fighting.

The humanitarian ceasefire is meant to allow ethnic Armenian forces and Azerbaijan to swap prisoners and bodies of people killed in two weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but governed and populated by ethnic Armenians.

But the ceasefire has frayed quickly. Azerbaijan said on Sunday it launched airstrikes against an Armenian regiment, following what it said was an Armenian rocket attack on an apartment building. Armenia denied carrying out such an attack.

On Monday, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Armenian forces had tried to attack its positions around the Aghdere-Aghdam and Fizuli-Jabrail regions, and were shelling territories in the Goranboy, Terter and Aghdam regions inside Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh said its forces had inflicted losses on Azeri forces and that large-scale military operations were continuing in the Hadrut area of the mountain enclave.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia, was monitoring the events and asked Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces to respect the ceasefire.

APPEALS TO TURKEY

Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Armenia’s foreign minister, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. He accused Azerbaijan of acting to expand Turkey’s influence in the region and of using pro-Turkish mercenaries – charges Ankara has denied.

Accusing Azerbaijan of ceasefire violations, Mnatsakanyan said: “We want the ceasefire, we want verification mechanisms on the ground, which will indicate the perpetrator, which will demonstrate the party, which is not faithful to this ceasefire.”

Speaking before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, urged Turkey to do more to end the latest flare-up of the decades-old conflict.

“Turkey has not called for a truce yet, and I believe they are completely wrong with this position,” Asselborn said.

“I think the message from Luxembourg will be a call on Turkey, a NATO member, to help arrange a ceasefire quickly.”

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev repeated calls for Turkey, which has voiced strong support for Azerbaijan since the fighting began, to be involved in peacemaking. Mediation has for years been led by France, Russia and the United States.

“Even if many Western countries do not want to accept it, Turkey’s word is big, it’s fully independent,” he said.

The renewed fighting is the worst since a 1994 ceasefire ended a war over Nagorno-Karabakh that killed at least 30,000.

Azerbaijan said 41 Azeri civilians had been killed and 207 wounded in the fighting since Sept. 27. Azerbaijan has not disclosed information about military casualties.

Nagorno-Karabakh has said 429 of its servicemen and more than 20 civilians have been killed in the fighting.

(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Writing by Sujata Rao, Editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)

Russia-Turkey ceasefire broadly holds despite clashes in Syria’s Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Jonathan Spicer

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Deadly clashes erupted in parts of northwest Syria on Friday but a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey aimed at ending months of intense conflict was largely holding elsewhere in the country’s last rebel-held enclave.

A war monitor and rebel sources said the fighting broke out in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Idlib province between Syrian government forces and jihadist insurgents of the Turkistan Islamic Party. Fifteen people were killed, the Syrian Observatory said.

Residents and opposition forces said the violence had abated elsewhere.

The clashes, while limited, underline the fragility of Thursday’s deal between Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and Turkey. Ankara supports rebel fighters but has less sway over hardline jihadists who control large parts of Idlib.

The ceasefire aims to contain a conflict that has displaced nearly a million people in three months in Idlib, which borders Turkey. But analysts and residents said they feared it would not hold in part because it did not address the humanitarian crisis nor air protection in any detail.

“The deal is a failure and a joke,” said Amar Ahmed, 32, a farmer who has been displaced for nearly two months and lives in a destroyed building. “We want to go back home, to our lands, and for the (Assad) regime to leave our home towns.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had vowed repeatedly in recent weeks to reverse advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib. However, Thursday’s deal froze the conflict along existing front lines, cementing significant gains by Syrian government forces.

“There may be criticism but our priority was for a ceasefire and we achieved it. Some goals were not reached but that goes for both sides,” a senior Turkish official said.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The recent fighting sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has tried to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Russia had repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring troops and equipment into Idlib since early last month. About 60 Turkish troops have been killed in that time.

The ceasefire deal establishes a security corridor stretching 6 km (3.7 miles) to the north and south of Idlib’s east-west M4 highway, where joint Russian-Turkish patrols will begin on March 15, effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into the province.

Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed. The latest one did not detail a “safe zone” or describe how displaced people could return to their homes.

“Any ceasefire arrangement in Idlib, unless it has a no-fly zone dimension, is bound to fail. Deals in the past never de-escalated. They merely froze the crisis until the next escalation,” said Galip Dalay, IPC-Mercator fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Zagreb, Dutch minister Stef Blok said the ceasefire should be cemented with a no-fly zone to stop any further bombing of hospitals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped the deal “will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone”.

Erdogan said the sides would work together to supply aid to Syrians in need, but that Turkey retained the right to “respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

TENSE CALM

Residents and fighters in the region said the front lines – which have seen heavy air strikes by Russian and Syrian jets, and intense Turkish artillery and drone strikes – were largely quiet after the midnight ceasefire came into effect.

“There is a ceasefire but there are violations,” said Abdul Ghani al Sheikh, a rebel fighter from the Turkey-backed Failaq Sham rebel group. He said government forces were shelling Jabal al Zawya and Atareb, to the south and east of Idlib.

“But the situation overall is better. Everyone thinks this is all temporary and Turkish reinforcements are still coming,” he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that the first eight hours of the ceasefire had passed with “relative calm”, and the skies had been free of Syrian government and Russian warplanes.

A Syrian state reporter, broadcasting from the town of Saraqeb recaptured by Syrian forces last week, said they were reinforcing positions at the front lines.

Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions called the National Liberation Front, said government forces had violated the ceasefire with shelling and attempts to storm a front line, leaving little trust between the sides.

Ahmad Rahhal, a former general in Syria’s government forces who defected to the opposition, said: “There is no pullout, and where will the displaced go (who) would never accept going to (Assad) regime areas? What we have heard is not comforting.”

(Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Samar Hassan in Cairo and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)