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 president of Azerbaijan, 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.
“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.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is mediating the talks after President Vladimir V. Putin warned this week that Russia could be forced to uphold its mutual defense pact with Armenia if the fighting spread.
People fleeing the fighting on Friday described the violence as more ferocious than what took place during the yearslong war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s that killed some 20,000 people and displaced about a million, mostly Azerbaijanis.
Over the past two weeks, many in Nagorno-Karabakh fled to basements and shelters. Rafik Arakelyan, 69, and his wife drove their car into the woods and stayed there for six days, venturing home only occasionally for food.
“It’s very brutal now — more so than then,” said Maria Ayrian, a 39-year-old knitting teacher who was injured by shrapnel as a girl during the earlier war. No drones, she noted, were deployed in the earlier conflict.
The fighting on the front line this time has been so heavy that soldiers have not been able to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades.
Tatul Hakobyan, an Armenian journalist who has covered the region for more than 30 years and spent much of the past two weeks in Nagorno-Karabakh, described it as the most intense that Armenians have seen since World War II.
Soldiers have been fighting in trenches along the front over small bits of territory, backed up by far more destructive weaponry than what they had available in decades past. Russia sells weapons to both countries, and Israel is a major supplier of drones and other sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan.
“It feels like one day of this war is approximately equal to three months of the first Karabakh war,” Mr. Hakobyan said. “I did not expect that there would be such a full-scale war.”
Armenia said on Friday that 376 of its soldiers had died in the fighting. Azerbaijan has not disclosed its losses. The United Nations estimated that as of Thursday, 58 civilians had been killed, including children, while apartment buildings, schools and other civilian structures had been destroyed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that it had made an emergency delivery of body bags to Nagorno-Karabakh and was “looking at upgrading forensic capacities across the region.”
Ms. Grigoryan, the Russian literature teacher, had fled with five grandchildren for the safety of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Afterward, she said, an apartment where some of the children lived was bombed.
“Can’t they stop the war, at least for a day or two?” she said. “Any negotiation is better than war.”
While Russia has acted as an influential mediator in the conflict in the past, its sway has waned across the post-Soviet space, and Friday’s talks represented the Kremlin’s most concerted effort yet to halt the fighting. ”
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 its defense agreement with Armenia if the fighting spilled onto Armenian territory, raising the prospect of Russian intervention.
The fighting carried on Friday even as the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian foreign ministers opened the talks in Moscow.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry said that the two armies exchanged artillery fire across the front line 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 that since the fighting started last month, 31 civilians had been killed and 178 wounded by artillery fire.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights on Friday called for the militaries to halt the use of cluster munitions, which scatter small bombs over a wide area and are particularly lethal to civilians. The fighting also risked spreading the coronavirus, its statement noted.
But Nagorno-Karabakh residents who had fled the fighting and crammed into hotels in the Armenian city of Goris, just outside the enclave, on Friday said they saw the coronavirus as a relatively minor concern.
Reflecting the energy that has gripped both Armenia and Azerbaijan, volunteers staffed an aid distribution center providing apples, jugs of sunflower oil, cartons of wet wipes and bags of the Caucasian flatbread known as lavash to soldiers and the displaced.
“We don’t want war,” said Sona Arzumanyan, a 20-year-old graphic designer who was overseeing the volunteers. “But if there is war, we will serve until the last drop of blood.”
Mr. Arakelyan, who hid from the shelling for nearly a week in the woods in his car, narrowly escaped when the vehicle caught fire because of a mechanical issue. Eventually, Armenian journalists gave him and his wife a ride to Goris.
On Friday, he was huddled in front of the flat-screen television in the crowded lobby restaurant of his hotel, where he and other Nagorno-Karabakh residents had received free room and board. He had lost his left leg because of a bullet wound in the final days of the 1990s war.
Nearby, Ms. Ayrian, the knitting teacher, and several female relatives were knitting clothing for Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers out of rigid local wool. Their adult sons, brothers and husbands had stayed behind.
“We have been fighting for 30 years,” Mr. Arakelyan said. “But there were never this many wounded and dead.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Moscow, and Anton Troianovski from Goris, Armenia.