Early on September 19, Azerbaijan’s president set in motion a lightning-fast military plan months in the making that would redraw the geopolitical map and avenge an ignominious defeat suffered by his father some 30 years before.
In power for two decades and with one successful war already under his belt, President Ilham Aliyev had often spoken of returning the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to Azerbaijan’s full control after its ethnic Armenian inhabitants broke from Baku’s rule in the early 1990s.
Now, a confluence of factors had convinced Aliyev, 61, that the time was right, Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain, told Reuters.
“History takes turns and zigzags,” Suleymanov said. “We could not do this earlier and it would probably not be a good idea to do it later.”
“The stars aligned for certain reasons and President Aliyev saw the alignment,” said Suleymanov, who previously worked in Aliyev’s office.
Prominent among these “stars” was the new inability or unwillingness of Russia, the West, or Armenia to intervene to protect Nagorno-Karabakh. The self-governed enclave had 10,000 fighters at its disposal according to Azerbaijan, whose own army – estimated at over 120,000-strong by Western experts – dwarfed it.
In conversations with Reuters, two senior officials and a source who has worked with Aliyev underscored that the decision to take back the breakaway region took shape over months as diplomatic realities shifted.
It was also deeply personal for the president, they said.
Speaking to the people of Azerbaijan the day after his troops had gone in, Aliyev said he had ordered his soldiers not to harm civilians. Baku would later say that 192 of its soldiers had been killed in the operation that followed; the Karabakh Armenians that they had lost over 200 people.
“President Aliyev is completing something that his father could not do because he ran out of time,” said one of the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to give comments to the media.
Aliyev’s actions have loosened Russia’s decades-long grip on the strategically important South Caucasus region which is crisscrossed with oil and gas pipelines, lies between the Black and Caspian seas, and borders Iran, Turkey and Russia.
In three interviews, one before and two after the military operation, Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser Hikmet Hajiyev said Baku’s patience with the status quo had snapped.
Less than two weeks before Azerbaijani forces swept into Karabakh, Hajiyev told Reuters that Baku was not seeking any military objectives “at this stage” but remained vigilant. It could not accept what he called a “grey zone” with Karabakh’s own armed security forces, which he likened to the mafia, on Azerbaijani territory, he said.
The Karabakh defence force has since disbanded under the terms of a new ceasefire deal, but they have rejected Azerbaijani criticism in the past, calling themselves a legitimate fighting force.
On the day of the military operation, after fighting abated, Hajiyev listed what he called “triggering elements” that prompted Baku to resort to military action, mentioning a landmine explosion that killed two Azerbaijani civilians earlier that day in part of Karabakh recaptured in a 2020 war.
“Enough is enough,” Hajiyev said.
Aliyev also referred to the mine attack, and a similar incident which had killed four others. Karabakh Armenians called the assertions an “absolute lie.” Reuters was unable to independently verify what had happened.
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In the event, Russia, which has peacekeepers on the ground but is busy with its own war in Ukraine, stood to one side.
Hajiyev said Azerbaijan gave the Russians “minutes’ notice” before the operation began.
Nikol Pashinyan, prime minister of neighbouring Armenia, which twice fought major wars over Karabakh, did not heed calls from opposition politicians to intervene and said his country needed to be “free of conflict” for the sake of its own independence.
The West – which had previously tried to mediate – merely urged Aliyev to halt his operation and was duly ignored.
Pashinyan went on to harshly criticise Russia for not doing enough to avert the crisis. On a conference call last week, the Kremlin denied its peacekeepers should have intervened.
Russia’s foreign ministry added he was making “a massive mistake” and accused him of trying to destroy Armenia’s centuries-old ties with Moscow.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
With Russia distracted in Ukraine, Aliyev appeared to sense a window of opportunity. In December last year, Azerbaijani citizens describing themselves as environmentalists unhappy about illegal mining began to block the Lachin corridor, the only road linking Karabakh to Armenia.
Karabakh officials at that time said the protesters were a front and included Azerbaijani officials. Baku denied the accusation. Apparently reluctant to risk escalation, armed Russian peacekeepers did not act to remove the protesters by force.
In June, citing a shooting incident, Azerbaijan blocked the corridor, stopping transport including the passage of humanitarian aid. It only allowed medical evacuees out, a step that deepened Karabakh’s food and medicine shortages.
Armed border guards manned a checkpoint close to a base for the Russian peacekeepers, who again did not intervene. Baku ignored calls from Washington and Moscow to unblock the road, citing a weapons-smuggling risk.
In May, in an attempt to advance peace negotiations, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan made what looked like a breakthrough offer. Armenia was ready to recognise Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, if Baku guaranteed the security of its ethnic Armenian population.
Aliyev appears to have seized on what he saw as a long overdue admission of reality as a sign of weakness. The source who has worked with Aliyev called the shift “very important.”
“After Armenia recognised Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan, what status can the criminal regime that has been calling the shots in Karabakh for 30 years have?,” Aliyev told Azerbaijanis in his victory speech last week.
On the same day, the Russian foreign ministry accused Pashinyan of sowing the seeds of Karabakh’s demise as an ethnic Armenian enclave by recognising it was part of Azerbaijan. That, it said, had changed “the situation” for Russia’s own peacekeeping contingent.
Karabakh slipped from Azerbaijan’s grasp in the chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s breakup. In a 1988-1994 war, around 30,000 people were killed and over 1 million displaced, over half of them Azerbaijanis.
Aliyev’s father, then President Heydar Aliyev, was forced to agree to a ceasefire that cemented Armenia’s victory.
Ilham, who had succeeded Heydar on his death in 2003, signed an oil deal with a BP-led consortium a year later that gave Azerbaijan funds to start building a modern army.
More recently, Azerbaijan benefited financially from the West’s decision to cut energy purchases from Russia. The European Commission last year agreed to double imports of Azerbaijani natural gas by 2027.
For years, Moscow’s alliance and defence pact with Armenia – where it has military facilities – deterred Baku from using force even as Russia sold weapons to both sides.
But Moscow’s ties with Armenia began to sour in 2018 when Pashinyan, a former journalist, led street protests that brought him to power at the expense of a long line of pro-Russian Armenian leaders.
And as Azerbaijan’s army overhaul and modernisation drive intensified, Armenia limped from crisis to crisis.
Seeing there was no love lost between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinyan, who had spoken in favour of ties with the West, Aliyev tested the waters. In 2020, he launched a 44-day war that his army won – with the help of advanced Turkish drones, clawing back a chunk of Karabakh.
Russia brokered a ceasefire that appeared to be a win for Moscow, allowing it to deploy nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to Karabakh. The step gave it a military footprint in Azerbaijan, an apparent buffer against further Azerbaijani military action.
Then Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed the equation again, drawing Moscow into a war of attrition with Kyiv.
FOG IN THE AIR
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 19, residents of Stepanakert, Karabakh’s capital and known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan, heard loud and repeated artillery fire as fog hung in the air.
What Aliyev called an anti-terrorism operation had begun, with ground forces backed by drones and artillery sweeping in to overwhelm Karabakh’s defensive lines.
At least five Russians were killed in the violence that followed, in an apparent accident which Aliyev apologised to Putin for.
Within 24 hours, Baku declared victory and the Karabakh Armenian fighters agreed to a ceasefire that obliged them to disarm.
Karabakh Armenians said they felt betrayed on all sides.
“Karabakh has been left on its own: Russian peacekeepers practically don’t fulfil their obligations, the democratic West turned away from us, and Armenia also turned away,” David Babayan, an adviser to the leader of the Karabakh administration, complained to Reuters a day after the rout.
Babayan has since given himself up to the Azerbaijani authorities, he announced on Telegram. The administration he advised has announced its own disbandment.
“Azerbaijan regained its sovereignty at around 1:00 p.m. yesterday,” Aliyev told the nation.
Four days after the operation, some of Karabakh’s 120,000 Armenians began what became a mass exodus by car towards Armenia, saying they feared persecution and ethnic cleansing despite Azerbaijani promises of safety. Ten days after Azerbaijan struck, 98,000 people had fled into Armenia, the authorities there said.
“This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history,” said Father David, a 33-year-old Armenian priest who came to the border to provide spiritual support for those arriving. “The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships.”
For Azerbaijan, Karabakh’s return paves the way for tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis who once fled it to go back, a promise Aliyev’s father gave repeatedly.
“President Aliyev has delivered the testament of his father,” said Suleymanov, the ambassador to Britain.
Hundreds still stranded, plants closed in India’s Chennai
Volunteers waded through stagnant water to hand out food and supplies, and some manufacturing plants remained shut in India’s southern tech-and-auto hub district of Chennai on Friday, four days after cyclone Michaung lashed the coast.
At least 14 people, most of them in Chennai and its state of Tamil Nadu, have died in the flooding, triggered by torrential rains that started on Monday.
The cyclone itself made landfall further north in Andhra Pradesh state on Tuesday afternoon.
Authorities said some low-lying areas of the state were still inundated and government officials and volunteers were taking supplies to people stuck in their homes in slums and other areas.
The larger Chennai area is home to the Indian units of several global firms including Hyundai Motor (005380.KS), Daimler and Taiwan’s Foxconn (2317.TW) and Pegatron (4938.TW) which do contract manufacturing for Apple (AAPL.O).
While many of them including Pegatron and Foxconn resumed operations within a day or two of the cyclone making landfall, some plants of the TVS group located in the worst-affected areas are yet to open, industry sources said.
Adani Krishnapatnam Port (APSE.NS) in Andhra Pradesh, said on Friday the cyclone had “very badly affected” its operations and it was declaring a force majeure period starting Dec. 3.
Force majeure is a notice used to describe events outside a company’s control, such as a natural disaster, which usually releases it from contractual obligation without penalty.
State-run Madras Fertilizers (MDFT.NS) notified stock exchanges that its Chennai plant has been shut and is tentatively expected to resume operations within two to four weeks.
Information technology (IT) services providers told staff to work from home for the week, while schools and colleges closed. A few schools and colleges were converted into temporary shelters.
This week’s floods in Chennai brought back memories of the extensive damage caused by floods eight years ago which killed around 290 people.
In Andhra Pradesh, the damage from the cyclone was relatively contained, with roads damaged and trees uprooted as big waves crashed into the coast.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Chennai on Thursday and announced New Delhi will release a second instalment of 4.5 billion rupees ($54 million) to Tamil Nadu to help manage the damage. The federal government has also approved a 5.6 billion-rupee project for flood management in Chennai, he said.
Chennai residents questioned the ability of the city’s infrastructure to handle extreme weather.
“Not only has urbanisation itself caused a problem, but the nature of the urbanisation has preyed upon open spaces, holding areas like marshlands and flood plains,” social activist Nityanand Jayaraman said.
Experts have, however, said better stormwater drainage systems would not have been able to prevent the flooding caused by very heavy and extremely heavy rains.
“This solution would have helped a lot in moderate and heavy rainfall, but not in very heavy and extremely heavy rains,” Raj Bhagat P, a civil engineer and geo-analytics expert, said on Wednesday.
Gunman described as struggling academic with ‘target list’
The gunman who killed three professors and wounded one at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was a financially struggling academic whose job applications were rejected by several higher-education institutions in Nevada, police said on Thursday.
Anthony James Polito, 67, also had mailed nearly two dozen suspicious letters to faculty at universities across the country and had prepared a “target list” of people at both UNLV and a North Carolina university where he once worked, police said.
Polito, facing eviction from his home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, had a criminal record of computer trespass dating to 1992 in Virginia, but police said there were no advance signs of violence.
The Taurus 9mm handgun he used in the shooting was legally purchased in 2022, according to Sheriff Kevin McMahill of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He said Polito, who police shot dead after the attacks, was believed to have acted alone.
The precise motive for the rampage remained to be determined, though officials said it appeared students were not the primary target.
All four people shot on Wednesday inside Beam Hall, the campus building that houses UNLV’s business school, were faculty members.
Two of the dead were identified as professor Cha Jan “Jerry” Chang, 64, and assistant professor Patricia Navarro Velez, 39. The identity of the third slain professor was being withheld pending notification of family.
The surviving victim remained hospitalized, and his condition worsened on Thursday, McMahill said.
Letters and list
Detectives learned Polito had visited a post office shortly before the shooting and mailed 22 letters with no return address to university personnel across the United States, and had a list of people he was seeking on the UNLV campus as well as faculty from his former employer, East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
His LinkedIn profile described Polito as a semi-retired associate professor of business who taught at East Carolina from 2001-2017.
Authorities intercepted the letters before any were delivered and found a suspicious white powdery substance in at least one of them, McMahill said at a news briefing on Thursday.
The letters’ contents remained under investigation, the sheriff told reporters, warning that anyone in higher education who received such an envelope should exercise caution and contact authorities.
He said officials were working to notify the intended recipients and had contacted nearly everyone on the separate target list to make sure all were safe.
“None of the individuals listed on the target list became a victim,” he told reporters.
He said detectives also had uncovered evidence that Polito was struggling financially, including an eviction notice taped to the entrance of his apartment. He said a document that appeared to be a will was found inside.
“We know he had applied numerous times for jobs with several Nevada higher-education institutions,” McMahill added, but he did not say whether UNLV was one of them.
Police searching Polito’s home also recovered ammunition similar to the 150 rounds he was carrying.
The UNLV campus will remain closed through Friday. The UNLV website said classes had been canceled through Dec. 10.
Israel says Reuters journalist Abdallah was killed in combat zone
The Israeli military, responding on Friday to a Reuters investigation that determined its forces killed a Reuters journalist in southern Lebanon on Oct. 13, said the incident took place in an active combat zone and was under review.
Without directly addressing the death of visuals journalist Issam Abdallah, a military statement said Lebanese Hezbollah fighters had at the time attacked across the border and Israeli forces opened fire to prevent a suspected armed infiltration.
A Reuters special report published on Thursday found that an Israeli tank crew killed Abdallah and wounded six reporters by firing two shells in quick succession from Israel while the journalists were filming cross-border shelling.
Israel’s statement on Friday said that on Oct. 13, Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants launched an attack on multiple targets within Israeli territory along the Lebanese border.
“One incident involved the firing of an anti-tank missile, which struck the border fence near the village Hanita. Following the launch of the anti-tank missile, concerns arose over the potential infiltration of terrorists into Israeli territory,” the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said in a statement.
“In response, the IDF used artillery and tank fire to prevent the infiltration. The IDF is aware of the claim that journalists who were in the area were killed.
“The area is an active combat zone, where active fire takes place and being in this area is dangerous. The incident is currently under review,” it said.
The strikes killed Abdullah, 37, and severely wounded Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer Christina Assi, 28, just over a kilometre from the Israeli border near the Lebanese village of Alma al-Chaab.
Amnesty International said on Thursday that the Israeli strikes were likely to have been a direct attack on civilians and must be investigated as a war crime.
In a separate report Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the two Israeli strikes were “an apparently deliberate attack on civilians and thus a war crime” and said those responsible must be held to account. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday it was important that Israel’s inquiry into the killing reach a conclusion and for the results to be seen.
“My understanding is that Israel has initiated such an investigation, and it will be important to see that investigation come to a conclusion, and to see the results of the investigation,” Blinken said at a press conference.
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