Associated Press, April 3, 2016 (much additional reporting further below)
More than 30 people killed in clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh region located between Armenia and Azerbaijan
BAKU, Azerbaijan – At least 30 soldiers and a boy were reported killed as heavy fighting erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting was one of the worst outbreaks since the end of a full-scale war over the region in 1994.
Since 1994, mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh – officially part of Azerbaijan – has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military. Armenian forces also occupy several areas outside Nagorno-Karabakh proper. The sides are separated by a demilitarised buffer zone, but small clashes have broken out frequently.
Each side blamed the other for Saturday’s escalation. In a statement, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said that 12 of its soldiers “became shahids” – Muslim martyrs – and that one of its helicopters had been shot down. The statement also claimed that more than 100 Armenian soldiers had been killed or wounded and that six tanks and 15 artillery positions had been destroyed.
The Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, told his national security council that 18 Armenian soldiers had been killed and 35 wounded. Armenia had earlier claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on Azerbaijani forces, without giving figures. A statement from the Nagorno-Karabakh defence ministry claimed more than 200 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, but there was no corroboration for that figure.
David Babayan, a spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist president, said a boy of about 12 had been killed and two other children wounded in a Grad missile barrage by Azerbaijani forces. He also characterised the fighting as the worst since 1994.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, urged all sides to cease firing and “show restraint”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies. Russia’s foreign and defence ministers had contacted their Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in the hope of stabilising the situation, the ministries said.
“The situation along the entire length of the line of opposition between Karabakhi and Azerbaijani armed forces continues to be extremely difficult,” Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan told Associated Press.
Years of negotiations mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have brought little progress in resolving the territorial dispute. The negotiation efforts are led by a troika of envoys from the U.S., Russia and France. On Saturday, the envoys jointly issued a statement calling on both sides “to stop shooting and take all necessary means to stabilise the situation on the ground”.
Armenian forces also occupy several areas outside Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides are separated by a demilitarised buffer zone, but both claim frequent violations by the other.
The Armenian defence ministry said Azerbaijan had used aircraft, tanks and artillery to try to make inroads into Nagorno-Karabakh and that “Azerbaijani authorities bear all responsibility for the unprecedentedly supercharged situation”.
The Azerbaijani defence ministry said the fighting began when Armenian forces fired mortars and large-calibre artillery shells across the frontline. Ministry spokesman Vagif Dargyakhly told Associated Press that more than 120 shots had been fired, some of which hit civilian residential areas.
Azerbaijan says it has stopped fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, but locals deny claim
Azerbaijan said on Sunday it would stop fighting Armenian-backed separatists [sic] over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region after two days of clashes, but the other side denounced Baku’s gesture as hollow and said violence was continuing.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians, has run its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia since a separatist war ended in 1994. But the situation along the tense “contact line” deteriorated in recent weeks, leading to clashes in which dozens were killed that drew international calls for an immediate ceasefire. Both sides also reported civilian casualties.
“Armenia has violated all the norms of international law. We won’t abandon our principal position. But at the same time we will observe the ceasefire and after that we will try to solve the conflict peacefully,” President Ilham Aliyev said at a security council meeting broadcast by Azeri state TV.
Aliyev also said Azeri troops had achieved a “great victory” in an apparent reference to territorial gains made on Saturday.
Armenian officials, however, said the fighting had not let up and Deputy Defence Minister David Tonoyan said his country was ready to provide “direct military assistance” to Nagorno-Karabakh forces if necessary. “The statement by the Azerbaijan side is an information trap and does not amount to a unilateral ceasefire,” Artsrun Hovhannisyan, spokesman for the Armenian Defence Ministry, said in a post on his Facebook page.
Russian news agencies reported artillery attacks by both sides near the town of Mardakert in the north of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azeri Defence Ministry said earlier on Sunday it would “cease retaliatory military actions” against the separatist forces. The previous day it said the Azeri army had “liberated strategic heights and settlements” in the north and east of the region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh military said Baku’s statement on a unilateral ceasefire was “disinformation” but that it was ready to discuss a ceasefire proposal from Azerbaijan on the condition both sides returned to their positions held before the clashes erupted. “The Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces are ready to meet and discuss a ceasefire proposal in the context of restoring former positions,” the Nagorno-Karabakh military said.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region home to around 150,000 people on the southern Armenian-Azeri border, broke out in the dying years of Soviet Union. By the time the 1994 ceasefire was brokered, some 30,000 people had been killed in the violence.
Multiple efforts over the years to reach a permanent settlement led by France, Russia and the United States have failed. Baku frequently threatens to take back the mountain region by force.
The Azeri Defence Ministry said its forces had destroyed 10 separatist tanks and killed multiple fighters in overnight clashes.
The Nagorno-Karabakh military rejected the Azeri statements that it had suffered heavy losses as a “display of unrestrained fantasies”, saying it had destroyed 14 Azeri tanks and five armored vehicles in the past 24 hours.
“The enemy is trying to hide its helplessness, carrying out attacks with Grad rocket launchers and 152 millimeter artillery in the direction of the civilian population,” the Armenian Defence Ministry said in a statement.
Crisscrossed with pipelines and sandwiched between the Caspian and Black seas, stability in the southern Caucasus is a major strategic objective for Azerbaijan and other large oil and gas producers in the region.
World top oil producer Russia – which maintains a garrison of troops, jets and attack helicopters in northern Armenia – has been a key mediator in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and moved on Saturday to suppress the renewed violence. President Vladimir Putin urged the warring sides to immediately observe the ceasefire while Russia’s foreign and defense ministers talked by phone with their Armenian and Azeri counterparts.
Azerbaijan’s presidential press service said Turkey, the other major power in the region along with Russia, had voiced support for Baku’s actions, the RIA news agency reported.
The United Nations has also called on the parties involved to put an immediate end to the fighting and to respect the ceasefire agreement. “The Secretary General… is particularly concerned by the reported use of heavy weapons and by the large numbers of casualties, including among the civilian population,” a U.N. spokesman said in a statement late on Saturday.
Azerbaijan and Armenia clashes continue for third day, news agency reports, April 4, 2016
… Following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia towards the end of the first world war, Moscow’s new rulers established the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.
When the Soviet empire began to implode in the late 1980s, the mostly Christian Armenians fought to break the grip of the mostly Muslim Turkic Azeris. Up to 30,000 people are thought to have died before the 1994 truce.
Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of Nagorno-Karabakh escalation with tanks, artillery, aircraft, RT.com, April 2, 2016 (with video and video news)