MOSCOW — Azerbaijan and Armenia have agreed to participate in Russian-brokered talks on a cease-fire in Moscow on Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, in a first diplomatic breakthrough after weeks of fierce fighting in the Caucasus.
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.
In nighttime telephone conversations with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia suggested a limited truce as a preliminary step. That would pause the fighting long enough for the two sides to collect bodies from the battlefield and exchange prisoners.
Mr. Putin invited both countries’ foreign ministers to talks in Moscow, and the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, confirmed on Friday that they would attend.
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. That raised alarms because Russia has a mutual defense pact with Armenia, though it maintains ties and sells weapons to both sides.
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 death tolls. The warring sides have said dozens of civilians have also been killed.