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Christian peace mission forced to leave blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh region after surprise bombardment

by Glyn Jones

A surprise attack by the army of Azerbaijan forced a delegation from the World Council of Churches to abandon part of its planned visit to Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday.

The territory has been at the centre of a long-running dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan with two wars since the break up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and simmering violence.

Church leaders from the World Council were on their way to visit the Lachin Corridor - a key route for getting food and medical aid into Armenia.

The organisation's Secretary General, Revd Prof Dr Jerry Pillay, told Premier the first they knew of the attack was when they heard the sound of the bombardment.

"It was very, very loud. We could hear the bombs going off. It is a scary experience when you reflect on it later."

Armenian soldiers were accompanying the delegation and instructed them to leave the area for their own safety.

The Lachin Corridor has been blockaded by Azerbaijan for nine months and Armenian aid agencies say the living conditions of more than 120,000 adults and children have been seriously affected.

The bombardment came as a surprise, as the day before two Red Cross lorries had been allowed to transport aid along the corridor for the first time.  Dr Pillay says the attack makes him pessimistic for the future:

"One was hoping they'd provide more opportunities for humanitarian aid to reach the people. But the very next day the attacks start. So one wonders where we're going with this."

Speaking before news of the ceasefire was announced on Wednesday, the World Council of Churches' General Secretary said he feared the bombardment was the start of a renewed conflict. "I'm hoping that [Azerbaijan] will not see this as an opportunity to invade Armenia. I'm really concerned."

While the visit to the Lachin Corridor has now been cancelled, the delegation has vowed to continue with the remainder of its peace mission, including meetings with church leaders and Armenian politicians.  

Dr Pillay is determined not to give up hope. "Our prayer is that these leaders will come to the table and be able to talk through these things. Our prayer is peace."

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