Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises
A burnt car is seen outside a hospital, which, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, was damaged during recent shelling by Azeri armed forces in Martakert. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 October 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises

Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire hopes sink as death toll rises
  • Azeri President Ilham Aliyev demanded that Armenia "halt attempts to capture liberated territories back"
  • The Armenian prosecutor-general's office said Azeri drones had killed two soldiers in the Vardenis region of Armenia on Wednesday

BAKU/YEREVAN: Hopes of a humanitarian ceasefire ending fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh sank further on Thursday as the death toll mounted and Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of launching new attacks.
Armenia accused Turkey of blocking flights carrying emergency aid from using its airspace, and Azerbaijan's president warned of "new victims and new bloodshed" from fighting over the mountain enclave that broke out on Sept. 27.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev demanded that Armenia "halt attempts to capture liberated territories back" and said his country would take all regions of Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia "acts negatively."
Last Saturday's ceasefire, aimed at letting the sides swap detainees and bodies of those killed in the clashes, has had little impact on the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.
In the deadliest flare-up since a 1990s war killed about 30,000 people, 604 Nagorno-Karabakh defence personnel have been killed, ethnic Armenian authorities say.
On Thursday, three Azeri civilians were killed and three were wounded during a funeral in Azerbaijan's Terter region when an artillery shell fell on a cemetery, presidential aid Hikmet Hajiyev said on Twitter.
That would add to Azeri estimates provided on Wednesday that 43 civilians had so far been killed. Baku does not disclose military casualties. The prosecutor's office said earlier on Thursday that two civilians had been wounded in shelling of the Aghdam area.
The Armenian prosecutor-general's office said Azeri drones had killed two soldiers in the Vardenis region of Armenia on Wednesday, raising the Armenian military death toll to five. The servicemen were not involved in military action, it said.
A tweet from Nagorno-Karabakh's ombudsman accused Azerbaijan of using heavy rockets to target civilian infrastructure in the town of Stepanakert.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
International organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have warned that the conflict, coming on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, could leave tens of thousands of people in need of aid over coming months.
Zareh Sinanyan, Armenian High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, said the delivery of 100 tonnes of aid from the United States was being delayed as Turkey had prohibited Armenia-bound humanitarian aid flights over its airspace.
Armenia's civil aviation committee was told on Wednesday the Qatar Airways flight from Los Angeles was cancelled but gave no reasons, said the committee's head, Tatevik Revazyan.
"We have grounds to claim that Turkey closed the air route deliberately," Revazyan told Reuters, adding alternative routes over Russia or Georgia were being sought.
Turkey's foreign ministry, which handles airspace issues, was not immediately available to comment.
Aside from humanitarian concerns, fears are growing of Russia and Turkey being sucked in. Turkey's military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, data shows, and Armenia has a defence pact with Russia.
In a phone call on Wednesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin expressed concerns about the participation of Middle East fighters in the conflict, though Turkey and Azerbaijan deny the presence of such fighters.
The fighting is also close to Azeri pipelines which carry natural gas and oil to international markets. Aliyev accused Armenia on Wednesday of trying to attack the pipelines, a charge that Armenia denied.


US to resume processing special visas for Afghans who aided Americans

US to resume processing special visas for Afghans who aided Americans
Updated 26 January 2021

US to resume processing special visas for Afghans who aided Americans

US to resume processing special visas for Afghans who aided Americans
  • Aimed at supporting Afghans and Iraqis who came under threat for their work with the US, the special visa programs have lengthy application processes
  • Some of those working for the US government or military have been killed in Afghanistan in attacks by the Taliban and other insurgents in the past years

KABUL: The US Embassy in Afghanistan will re-start issuing Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) for locals who worked for the US military and entities affiliated with Washington in the country, after suspending them in March due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, two US diplomats in Kabul told Arab news.

A US press report earlier put the number of those affected by the suspension of the visa approvals at thousands, but embassy staff said the figure stood at hundreds.

“In early February, the embassy’s consular section will begin a phased resumption of immigrant visa interviews, including interviews for SIV applicants,” a diplomat at the US Embassy in Kabul told Arab News, on condition of anonymity, on Tuesday.

“The initial phase will prioritize interviews postponed earlier, after which we expect to coordinate with the National Visa Center to resume scheduling new immigrant visa appointments for applications (the documents of which) are complete,” the diplomat said.

She added that because of ongoing COVID-19 measures, the embassy will have a reduced appointment capacity. The health and safety of applicants and staff will be the first priority as visa interviews resume, which may require future cancellations or reductions in appointments.

She could not say how many visas the embassy expects to process.

“We can’t provide the numbers that have been issued or that are waiting. However, Congress has authorized 26,500 principal applicants and the numbers remain available until the program ends. That is, they do not expire if unused in a given year — they carry forward into subsequent years. Specifically, no numbers have been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” another senior US diplomat told Arab News, also requesting anonymity.

More than 7,000 special visas allocated to Afghans by the US Congress in 2020 went unissued, compared with about 5,000 the year before, the Washington Post reported last week citing US State Department data.

Aimed at supporting Afghans and Iraqis who came under threat for their work with the US, the special visa programs have lengthy application processes that have prolonged the average waiting time to three years.

Some of those working for the US government or military have been killed in Afghanistan in attacks by the Taliban and other insurgents in the past years.

Embassy officials could not say if, amid the surge of targeted killings in recent months, any of the applicants waiting for SIVs had lost their lives or filed complaints of threats against them since the halt of the program in Afghanistan.

Two beneficiaries who worked for the US military as translators until 2019 said they had received threats by phone and had to change their residences as a result.

“The person from the other end said: ‘We know who you worked for, and (you) are a traitor of the country. We are after you,’” one Afghan translator, who worked with the US, said.

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a US-based legal and advocacy organization, has documented and conducted research on SIVs both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

“For more than a decade, the Iraqi and Afghan SIV programs have provided a pathway to safety for Iraqis and Afghans whose service, alongside US forces, diplomats, and aid workers, has exposed them and their families to threats, harm, and death,” IRAP said in a document obtained by Arab News.

“Tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been safely resettled in the US over the life of the program and it continues to operate today. The process has not, however, been smooth. Over the years, the SIV programs have been beset by technical, practical, and political obstacles and inefficiencies that have hampered their operation and threatened the promise that the US government made to these allies for their service.”

Any future SIV programs should be adjudicated by diplomats in a location that supports sufficient resources, set clear expectations for processing times, ensure that adequate numbers of visas are authorized and issued, accept credible statements from applicants as proof of an ongoing serious threat, and ensure that the surviving spouses and children of deceased applicants can pursue visas, it said.