MOSCOW — Azerbaijan and Armenia opened talks on Friday for a limited cease-fire after almost two weeks of fierce fighting over a disputed province, with the goal of achieving at least a pause long enough to collect bodies from the battlefield and to exchange prisoners.
But the prospects for a broader peace deal appeared dim after the Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, said in a televised speech Friday that he was happy to have talks but was making no concessions.
“We are winning and will get our territory back and ensure our territorial integrity,” Mr. Aliyev said. “Let them abandon our territory in peace.”
The conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, flared late last month and has threatened to spiral into a wider war drawing in Russia; Turkey, a NATO member; and possibly Iran.
The Russian Foreign Ministry mediated the talks after President Vladimir V. Putin warned earlier this week that Russia could be forced to uphold its mutual defense pact with Armenia if the fighting spread.
“Ours is a tiny country, hardly visible on the map, but it could be the start of gigantic war,” Irina Grigoryan, a teacher of Russian literature who fled Nagorno-Karabakh a week ago, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
After Ms. Grigoryan left with five grandchildren for the safety of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, an apartment where some of the children lived was bombed, she said. She said she is hopeful the cease-fire will hold.
“Can’t they stop the war, at least for a day or two?” she said. “Any negotiation is better than war.”
In nighttime telephone conversations with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, Mr. Putin suggested the limited truce as a preliminary step. Mr. Putin invited both countries’ foreign ministers to the talks in Moscow.
Mr. Putin “made an appeal to halt combat underway in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh from a humanitarian perspective,” the Kremlin said in a statement. “The goal is to exchange bodies of those who died and prisoners. To consult on these questions with mediation by the Russian Foreign Ministry” both sides were invited to Moscow, the statement said.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has simmered for decades in a remote mountain region of little geostrategic importance, after a war in the early 1990s ended in a cease-fire but no wider settlement. That changed when Turkey, which has been flexing its muscles regionally in recent months, openly backed Azerbaijan, its ethnic Turkic ally, in an escalation that began on Sept. 27.
Mr. Putin this week said that Russia would honor the defense agreement with Armenia if the fighting spilled onto Armenian territory rather than the area in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan. That statement raised the prospect of Russian intervention and was followed by the appeal for a truce to exchange bodies and prisoners.
Armenia said on Friday that 376 of its soldiers had died in the fighting to date. Azerbaijan has not been releasing body counts.
The fighting carried on Friday even as the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian foreign ministers prepared for the talks in Moscow.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry said the two armies exchanged artillery fire across the frontline overnight Thursday and into Friday, and that populated areas on its territory were hit.
Rocket artillery on Thursday hit the roof of the Holy Savior Cathedral, a cherished, 19th century Armenian cathedral in the hilltop town of Shusha, partially destroying it. The cathedral was also partially destroyed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s and subsequently restored.
Azerbaijani state news media reported shelling in two districts on Friday. The country’s prosecutor general said Friday that since the fighting started last month 31 civilians have been killed and 178 wounded by artillery fire.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights issued a statement Friday condemning the violence spilling over into civilian areas. The commission estimated that as of Thursday 58 civilians had been killed, including children, while apartment buildings, schools and other civilian structures had been destroyed.
The statement called for the militaries to halt use of cluster munitions, which scatter small bombs over a wide area and are particularly lethal to civilians. The fighting also risked spreading coronavirus, the statement noted.
Michelle Bachelet, the commissioner, said the warring sides needed to “abide by the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution,” and to avoid firing explosive weapons into populated areas.