Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh are reported to be bickering about how many of their soldiers had been killed in recent clashes, stoking fears of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus.
The EU said on Tuesday (29 September) that the status quo was ‘unsustainable’.
According to Reuters, violence erupted last week, with both sides accusing one another of starting the fighting, and of killing each other’s soldiers in an area that is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines.
In an account that was disputed, Armenia said Azeri forces had also attacked several villages near the border between the two former Soviet republics, killing three civilians.
On Monday (28 September), the Azeri defence ministry said three of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting, and that seven Armenian-backed soldiers from Karabakh had also been killed, with many more wounded.
That assertion was challenged by the ministry of defence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory belonging to Azerbaijan and controlled by Armenia. It said that more than 10 Azeri soldiers had been killed and several more wounded, denying it had suffered any casualties.
The European Commission said it had seen reports on the use of mortars and heavy weapon by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in and around civilian areas, causing casualties this month on each side of the international border. It reminded the parties that the Minsk Group Co-Chairs have issued a statement on this unacceptable escalation in the conflict.
“The status quo is unsustainable and the peaceful resolution of the conflict remains a priority for the EU. We welcome the meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan held on 27 September in New York, convened by the Co-Chairs”, said Maja Kociajancic, spokesperson to EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.
“We call for an immediate de-escalation of violence. The sides should show restraint on the ground, strictly respect the ceasefire and the Geneva conventions. We encourage the sides to re-engage in high level negotiations aimed at an early peaceful and comprehensive settlement,” Kocijancic said.
For over two decades, the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute over the territory — which no country recognises as independent — has been a major source of tension in the strategic South Caucasus region wedged between Iran, Russia and Turkey (see background).
The dispute is rooted in a bloody war in the early 1990s, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian separatists seized control of Karabakh and several other regions of Azerbaijan during the conflict that left some 30,000 dead.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Friday (25 September) appealed to both sides to halt the violence.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget, has threatened to take back Nagorno-Karabakh by force if negotiations fail.
Armenia, backed militarily by Russia, has said it could crush any offensive.
Armenia has joined the Russia-led EurAsian Union. Azerbaijan has no such plans, and doesn’t pursue the path toward EU association either. Baku says it wants privileged relations with the EU of the type South Korea or Australia have.
Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. It is a landlocked region in the Southern Caucasus, de jure on the territory of Azerbaijan, but de facto governed by the Armenian-backed breakaway government of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
An armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place between 1988 and 1994 over Nagorno-Karabakh. A Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed in May 1994.
In August 2008, the US, France and Russia began to negotiate a full settlement of the conflict, proposing a referendum on the status of the territory. The effort culminated in the signature in Moscow by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev of an agreement to hold talks on a political settlement.