Nagorno-Karabakh in for 'long winter' amid Azerbaijan road blockade

A view shows the village of Taghavard in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, January 16, 2021. Following the military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and a further signing of a ceasefire deal, the village was divided between the two sides. REUTERS/Artem Mikryukov

TBILISI, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Ethnic Armenians in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh are preparing for a "long-term blockade" by Azerbaijan, a top separatist official said on Friday, after nearly two weeks without fresh supplies of food and medicine.

Azerbaijani civilians identifying themselves as environmental activists have been facing off since Dec. 12 with Russian peacekeepers on the Lachin corridor, the only road across Azerbaijan that links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The United States and the European Union have urged Azerbaijan to unblock the corridor, warning of severe humanitarian consequences and damage to the fragile peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have fought two wars in the past three decades.

Azerbaijan denies blockading the road and has said the Russian peacekeepers closed it.

Ruben Vardanyan, head of the breakaway region's government, told Reuters on a video call from the main town Stepanakert that the "blockade" was exerting "big psychological pressure" on the population.

"We will not starve, because there’s enough food. But some products we cannot get on our internal market," he said, adding that fuel and certain medicines would be in short supply.

"It's a long winter we have in front of us. It's 100 days or more before we will get any grain, or herbs, or any other food we can grow in our own land. So we are preparing ourselves that it will be a long-term blockade."

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but its 120,000 inhabitants are predominantly Armenian and it broke away from Baku in a first war in the early 1990s.

In 2020, Azerbaijan retook territory in and around the enclave after a second war in 2020 that ended in a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have not signed a permanent peace treaty, and violations of the 2020 truce remain commonplace, with more than 200 soldiers killed on both sides in a flare-up of fighting in September.

The Armenian side says the Azerbaijanis blocking the road are acting at the behest of Baku. Azerbaijan says they are peacefully demonstrating against what it says is illegal mining by Armenians, with no intention of stopping transport.

Speaking during a visit to Moscow on Friday, Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said that reports of a blockade "do not correspond to reality", and that ambulances, Red Cross vehicles, and Russian peacekeepers can move freely along the Lachin corridor.

Bayramov said: "We are seeing the situation escalate. We are seeing how the given narrative is being pushed and propagated by the Armenian side in order to create a situation, to create the appearance of a crisis."

On Thursday Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at a Cabinet meeting described the situation around the Lachin corridor as "extremely tense", and said he had proposed terms to Azerbaijan for lifting the blockade.

Vardanyan accused Azerbaijan of using the blockade to "squeeze out" the Armenian population from Nagorno-Karabakh by convincing them they have "no future" in the region.

"Winter is the best time to do it. They control the gas, they control the electricity, they control the internet. They can do whatever they want," he added.

He said that plans for New Year's Eve and Christmas celebrations in the territory had had to be changed, as shortages loomed of everything from sugar and fruit, to cigarettes and construction materials.

"We had a plan to bring presents (from Armenia) for 12,000 kids below 6 years old," Vardanyan said. "Now they are all waiting for Santa Claus but I don’t know how we can do it."

Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Jonathan Oatis

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