Armenia and Azerbaijan in worst clash since 1994

An Armenian volunteer is seen on 2 April in the town of Askeran, near where clashes with Azeri forces were taking place. [Reuters]

Clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces continued yesterday (3 April), despite Baku announcing a ceasefire after the worst outbreak of violence in two decades over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region sparked international pressure to stop fighting.

Azerbaijan said it had decided to “unilaterally cease hostilities” and pledged to “reinforce” several strategic positions it claimed to have captured inside the Armenian-controlled territory.

The authorities in Karabakh – which claims independence but is heavily backed by Armenia – said they were willing to discuss a ceasefire but only if it saw them regain their territory.

Both sides accused each other of continuing to fire across the volatile frontline that has divided them since a war that saw Armenian separatists seize the region from Azerbaijan ended with an inconclusive truce in 1994 (see background).

“Fighting with the use of tanks and artillery continues, as Azerbaijan is telling lies that it halted hostilities. Azerbaijan continues shelling both Karabakh army positions and Armenian villages,” Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan told AFP.

“The Armenians have continued shelling throughout the day, without interruption,” Azerbaijani defence ministry spokesman Vagif Dargahly told AFP.

‘Largest-scale hostilities since 1994’

“Intense fighting continues in the southeast and northeast sectors of the front,” said David Babayan, spokesman for the separatist region.

On Saturday, fierce clashes left at least 18 Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani soldiers dead after the two sides accused each other of attacking with heavy weaponry across the volatile frontline.

The Karabakh authorities said one boy was killed in the fighting, while Azerbaijan said two civilians died and ten were wounded.

Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan called the clashes the “largest-scale hostilities” since a 1994 truce ended a war in which Armenian-backed fighters seized the territory from Azerbaijan.

The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, said Armenia, who provoked the incident, suffered a devastating blow, and huge losses.

“A deserving response was given to the Armenian armed forces,” the president said. “Armenia was put in its place.”

Azerbaijan said one of its helicopters was shot down as its forces took control of several strategic heights and a village in Armenian-controlled territory.

Karabakh forces on Sunday claimed they took back the strategic Lala-Tepe height in Karabakh which was captured by Azeri troops on Saturday.

Baku denied the report, saying that the height remained under its control and that rebel troops sustained “serious manpower losses”.

Appeals for calm

Both Russia and the West appealed to all sides to show restraint, with key regional power broker President Vladimir Putin calling Saturday for an “immediate ceasefire”.

Moscow has supplied weaponry to both sides in the conflict, but has much closer military and economic ties to Armenia and Yerevan is reliant on Russia’s backing.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the arch foes to return to peace talks under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), reiterating “there is no military solution to the conflict”.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called on both parties to stop the fighting, avoid statements that could result in escalation and observe the ceasefire.

The EU recently called the Nagorno-Karabakh status quo “unsustainable”.

EU calls Nagorno-Karabakh escalation 'unsustainable'

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.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meanwhile vowed to back traditional ally Azerbaijan “to the end” in the conflict.

“We pray our Azerbaijani brothers will prevail in these clashes with the least casualties,” Erdoğan said.

A Saudi-based 57-member Muslim body on Sunday demanded Armenia’s “unconditional” withdrawal from the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, of which Azerbaijan is a member, condemned “the attack by Armenian forces on the borders of occupied Azerbaijani territories” and Yerevan’s “disrespect of the (unilateral) ceasefire” announced by Baku.

OIC Secretary General Iyad Madani called for increased international efforts towards a political settlement that would “preserve” Azerbaijan’s territories.

Ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region in an early 1990s war that claimed some 30,000 lives. The foes have never signed a peace deal despite the 1994 ceasefire.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending has in the past exceeded Armenia’s entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force if negotiations fail to yield results.

Moscow-backed Armenia says it could crush any offensive.

The last big flare-up occurred in November 2014 when Azerbaijan shot down an Armenian military helicopter.

While the reasons for the sudden surge remain unclear, analyst Thomas de Waal of Carnegie Europe wrote that the “potential for a serious outbreak of fighting has never been greater” as both sides have bolstered their arms.

“It is more likely that one of the two parties to the conflict — and more likely the Azerbaijani side, which has a stronger interest in the resumption of hostilities — is trying to alter the situation in its favour with a limited military campaign,” de Waal wrote in a blog post.

“The dangerous aspect to this is that, once begun, any military operations in this conflict zone can easily escalate and get out of control.”

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.

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