Azerbaijan has temporarily shut the only road linking its breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia, accusing the Armenian branch of the Red Cross of smuggling.
The Armenian-populated region has been at the centre of a decades-long territorial dispute between the Caucasus arch-foes, which have fought several wars over the mountainous territory.
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“The passage through Lachin checkpoint of the state border is temporarily suspended” pending an investigation into the Red Cross using its medical vehicles for “smuggling”, Azerbaijan’s state border service said on Tuesday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that it “is aware of concerns raised about the transport of unauthorised goods across the Lachin Corridor and does not support any such activity”.
“No unauthorized material has been found in any vehicle belonging to ICRC. All cargo is subject to customs checks by the Republic of Azerbaijan,” it added.
“However, we regret that without our knowledge four hired drivers tried to transport some commercial goods in their own vehicles which were temporarily displaying the ICRC emblem. These individuals were not ICRC staff members and their service contracts were immediately terminated by the ICRC.”
Azerbaijan in April set up the border point at the entrance to the Lachin corridor, exacerbating allegations from Armenia of a Karabakh “blockade”.
The Armenian branch of the Red Cross said in late June that Azerbaijan was blocking access to Karabakh, as concern grew over the humanitarian situation in the restive region.
Azerbaijan’s state border service said several days later that traffic through the Lachin corridor – policed by Russian peacekeepers – resumed on June 26.
The latest developments followed a months-long blockade by Azerbaijani environmental activists, which Yerevan claims spurred a humanitarian crisis, and food and fuel shortages.
Azerbaijan insisted at the time that civilian transport could go unimpeded through the Lachin corridor.
In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the UN’s top judicial body – ordered Azerbaijan to ensure free movement on the road.
Decades of conflict
The two former Soviet republics have fought two wars for control of Karabakh, in the 1990s and again in 2020.
Six weeks of fighting ended on November 9, 2020 with a Russian-sponsored ceasefire that saw Armenia cede swaths of territory it had controlled for decades.
There have been frequent clashes at the two countries’ shared border despite continuing peace talks between Baku and Yerevan under mediation from the European Union and United States.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ethnic Armenian separatists in Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan. The ensuing conflict killed about 30,000 people.