Azerbaijan has launched what it called “anti-terrorist activities” in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, its defence ministry said, stressing that the offensive would only target military structures.
“Local anti-terrorist activities carried out by the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan are ongoing,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Tuesday.
“As part of the activities, only legitimate military installations and infrastructure are targeted and incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” it said, adding that it has created humanitarian corridors to allow the evacuation of civilians.
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Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on Russian peacekeeping troops in the Armenian-majority region to intervene and stop what it said was Azerbaijan’s “full-scale aggression” against the local population.
A reporter with the Agence France-Presse news agency said explosions were heard in the region’s de facto capital, known as Stepanakert to Armenians and Khankendi in Azerbaijani.
Armenia’s Ministry of Defense said it had no military personnel or equipment in Karabakh.
The region has long been at the centre of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, leading to two wars for its control. It is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
The statement announcing the offensive came a few hours after Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at least six people had died in two accidents in the Azeri Khojavend district allegedly due to landmines installed by Armenia’s security forces.
Russia expressed deeply alarm “by the sharp escalation” in the contested region, the TASS news agency reported, citing Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova. She said Azerbaijan had warned Russian peacekeepers in the region about military action just minutes before launching it.
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric also expressed concern.
“It’s very important that all the activities cease and both parties go back to a sustained dialogue to avoid any further clashes,” he told Al Jazeera.
Decades of tension
The last large-scale conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh lasted for six weeks in 2020 before a Russian-brokered truce. The ceasefire saw Armenia cede swathes of territory it had controlled since the 1990s.
The two sides have since been unable to reach a lasting peace settlement despite mediation by the European Union, Russia and the United States.
Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of causing a months-long humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh after Baku last year blocked the sole road linking the mountainous region with Armenia. It is called the Lachin corridor, and Russian peacekeepers police it.
On Monday, trucks loaded with humanitarian aid entered Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenian separatists and the central government agreed to use roads linking the region to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to Baku.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, who has extensively covered events in Nagorno-Karabakh, said there was “great fear” that Tuesday’s operations could be the start of another large-scale war between the two neighbours.
Forestier-Walker said reports from inside the region spoke of “large-scale attacks in the form of potential rocket attacks and shelling” while the sound of small-arms fire could be heard in videos posted on social media.
Forestier-Walker said the situation has been “dire” for months for the population of Nagorno-Kabarakh.
“They have been cut off from the main roads supplying Karabakh from Armenia,” he said.
“Things have been shifting recently. The authorities in Azerbaijan were able to get some aid into Karabakh from the Azeri side of control, but they were still putting pressure on the access of Karabakh from Armenia because the Azeri authorities have claimed for a long time that this route is being used to smuggle in weapons and mines into the territory that is still under ethnic Armenian control.”