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First convoy of aid arrives to hungry ethnic Armenians as ceasefire negotiations continue

by Ros Mayfield

A much-needed humanitarian convoy arrived on Friday to ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, who have effectively been living under siege for more than nine months.

Trucks were seen on the road linking the disputed region to Armenia. It follows a reported ceasefire agreement from separatist leaders, with authorities in Azerbaijan, after a deadly two-day offensive that brought an apparent end to a decades-long conflict.

Armenia is the world's oldest Christian country, with a heritage going back over 1700 years. Christianity has played a central role in shaping Armenian history.

Baroness Caroline Cox is a longtime advocate for persecuted Christians and has visited the region many times. She told Premier: "I was right on the border and in Armenia just a few days ago, and the situation is very, very serious.

"Azerbaijan inflicted a blockade on the key lifeline between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh last December, and the people of Karabakh have been recently suffering enormously from desperate shortages of food, medical supplies, and fuel. So they've already known great suffering."

The Nagorno-Karabakh region is populated by ethnic Armenians and has been a centre of tension for years.  Azerbaijan mounted a lightning offensive this week and declared it had restored sovereignty over Karabakh. The mainly Muslim country wants an amnesty, where Karabakh Armenian fighters give up their arms.

The ethnic Armenian leadership of the breakaway region said on Friday that there were no concrete results yet from talks with Azerbaijan on promised security guarantees or an amnesty.

Azerbaijan's Foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, reaffirmed his country's determination to offer "all rights and freedoms" to Nagorno-Karabakh residents, including safeguards for ethnic minorities.

Thousands of Armenian families were seen heading to the airport in search of safety, sparking calls from separatist leaders for people not to evacuate. Asked whether or not the Armenians of Karabakh were on the move, David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters there was no large-scale movement of people as the region was effectively under siege.

"The Lachin corridor does not work as it should," he said. "At the present time, other questions need to be resolved."

"The situation is very difficult: the people are hungry, there is no electricity, no fuel - we have many refugees."

On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to make a delivery through another route, but the following day, a mission group from the World Council of Churches had to turn back on the orders of the army when the renewed fighting broke out.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the US was "deeply concerned" about Azerbaijan's military actions and is closely watching the humanitarian situation.

Caroline Cox urged Christians to pray for the Armenians in Karabakh: "The people are very brave. They are deeply committed Christians. And we're always humbled and inspired when we visit by their dynamic faith and their worship, which is passionately sincere and beautiful."

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