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Azerbaijan will allow aid into Karabakh from Armenia if aid from its side is let in, official says

FILE PHOTO: An ethnic Armenian soldier looks through binoculars as he stands at fighting positions near divided Taghavard village in Nagorno-Karabakh region

By Andrew Osborn

LONDON (Reuters) -Azerbaijan is ready to allow Red Cross aid from Armenia into the ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave if Red Crescent aid from Azerbaijan is let in at the same time, Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, told Reuters.

Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but run by ethnic Armenian authorities, is at the centre of a rancorous stand-off, with Azerbaijan restricting movement along the only road to it from Armenia to thwart what it says is arms smuggling.

Armenia says what it calls a blockade of the "Lachin corridor", known as "the road of life" by ethnic Armenians in Karabakh, has caused acute shortages of food, medicines and other essentials.

Baku says it has let the Red Cross evacuate people to Armenia for medical treatment and that its own information shows there is no shortage of basic food staples, but it has not allowed food and other supplies in for some time.

Hajiyev said in an interview on Thursday that Azerbaijan was now ready to let the Red Cross bring in humanitarian aid on condition that the Red Crescent also be allowed to bring in aid, on a different road from Azerbaijan.

He said the two roads - the Lachin corridor and the Aghdam road - could be opened to aid simultaneously as part of a pilot scheme that could defuse tensions and spur long-running peace talks between Baku and Yerevan.

The idea had been discussed in a phone call between President Aliyev and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sept. 1, he said.

"There was a suggestion for the simultaneous opening of the roads and Azerbaijan agreed and immediately agreed," said Hajiyev, saying that part of the Aghdam road had been obstructed with concrete blocks by Karabakh's ethnic Armenian authorities.

"Now one week has passed since the telephone call with Secretary Blinken and there is no movement."

Yuri Kim, acting assistant secretary of state for the United States, spoke on Thursday of "progress toward immediately & simultaneously opening Lachin and other routes to get humanitarian supplies into Nagorno-Karabakh".

"Opening routes and direct talks are key to resolving outstanding issues," Kim said on X.

Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire banker who was a top official in Karabakh's ethnic Armenian administration until February, said Azerbaijan was wrong to try to attach preconditions to allowing aid to pass through the Lachin corridor.

Vardanyan, who has accused Baku of trying to "ethnically cleanse" the enclave by choking off supplies to it - something it denies - said a Russian-brokered 2020 ceasefire deal signed by Azerbaijan after a short war was meant to ensure that the Lachin corridor remained open to Armenia.

"Their President signed a trilateral ceasefire statement on November 9th (2020) and took responsibility for providing a corridor for uninterrupted connection," Vardanyan said on X on Wednesday.

"However, they now refuse to implement that commitment and are attempting to impose new preconditions for opening the Lachin Corridor."

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey)