Armenian FM resigns amid turmoil over Nagorno-Karabakh truce

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia’s foreign minister submitted his resignation Monday amid political turmoil that has engulfed the country following a cease-fire deal for the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh that calls for ceding territory to longtime adversary Azerbaijan.

The Moscow-brokered truce halted the fighting that killed hundreds, possibly thousands, in six weeks, but stipulated that Armenia turn over control of some areas its holds outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders to Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.

The agreement was celebrated in Azerbaijan, but sparked mass protests in Armenia, with thousands of people taking to the streets and demanding that the country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinian, step down and the deal is invalidated.

Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s resignation was announced by his spokeswoman Monday. Anna Nagdhalyan posted his handwritten resignation letter on Facebook shortly after Pashinian said in parliament he decided to dismiss him. Earlier Monday, the ministry publicly disagreed with Pashinian over the course of Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.

Pashinian said during an online news conference earlier Monday that there had been offers to cede Azerbaijani regions Armenia controlled around Nagorno-Karabakh and the city of Shusha, which is strategically located near the territory’s capital Stepanakert.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Naghdalyan quickly retorted on Facebook that giving up Shusha was never on the agenda “at any stage” of the peace negotiations.

The exchange and the ensuing resignation of Mnatsakanyan, who has held the post since May 2018, may indicate that the political crisis in Armenia is deepening. It comes as 17 opposition parties and their supporters continue to demand Pashinian’s ouster, with thousands of people regularly taking to the streets of Armenia’s capital. On Monday, crowds gathered in Yerevan for another rally.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Heavy fighting that flared up on Sept. 27 marked the biggest escalation in over a quarter-century, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people.

A Russian-brokered truce last week halted the violence after several failed attempts to establish a lasting cease-fire. The agreement came two days after Azerbaijan, which had made significant advances, announced that it had seized Shusha.

Russian peacekeepers have started to deploy to the region — a total of 1,960 of them are to be sent in under a five-year mandate. Russia’s Defense Ministry reported Monday that the peacekeepers accompanied around 1,200 people returning to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia since Saturday.

At the same time, many ethnic Armenians have been leaving territories that will be handed over to Azerbaijan, with some setting their houses on fire in a bitter farewell and digging up the graves of their relatives in order to rebury their remains in Armenia.

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Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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