Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has said his country’s forces will “go to the end” should negotiations fail to result in an agreement by ethnic Armenian forces to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions.
Aliyev, speaking during a meeting on Sunday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, also said Armenia had “no basis” to request Russian military assistance in the conflict.
The conflict has brought into sharp focus the increased influence of Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a former Soviet region considered by Russia to be within its sphere of influence. Russia also has a security alliance with Armenia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has asked Moscow to outline the extent of the support it could expect from Moscow.
In response, Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday it would provide “all assistance required” should the conflict spill onto “the territory of Armenia” – land that is outside the current conflict zone.
Aliyev, quoted by state news agency Azertac, said he wanted to resolve the conflict through negotiations that would result in the withdrawal of ethnic Armenian forces.
“Otherwise,” he said, “we will continue by any means to restore our territorial integrity and … we will go to the end.”
His comments came as fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh entered its sixth week on Sunday, with both sides blaming each other for new attacks.
Nagorno-Karabakh officials accused Azerbaijan of targeting the town of Martuni with military aviation and several other areas with missile raids overnight. Azerbaijani forces continued shelling the region’s civilian settlements in the morning, they said.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry, in turn, rejected the allegation of targeting civilian areas and accused Armenian forces of firing at the positions of the Azerbaijani army on the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border. The ministry also said Armenian forces were shelling settlements in the regions of Terter and Aghjabedi.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. The latest outburst of hostilities began on September 27 and has left hundreds – if not thousands – dead, marking the worst escalation of the decades-old conflict between the two ex-Soviet nations in more than 25 years.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,166 of their troops and 45 civilians have been killed. Azerbaijani authorities have not disclosed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed at least 91 civilians and wounded 400. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, according to Moscow’s information, the actual death toll was significantly higher and nearing 5,000.
Azerbaijan’s advances on the battlefield since the fighting began have reduced its incentive to strike a lasting peace deal and complicated international efforts to broker a truce. Three ceasefires have failed to hold.
In the most recent attempt to defuse tensions, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met on Friday in Geneva for a day of talks brokered by Russia, the United States and France, co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that tries to mediate the conflict.
The talks concluded with the two sides agreeing they “will not deliberately target civilian populations or non-military objects in accordance with international humanitarian law,” but the agreement was quickly challenged by reports of shelling of civilian settlements.
Azerbaijani troops, which have relied on drone strikes and long-range rocket systems supplied by Turkey, have reclaimed control of several regions on the fringes of Nagorno-Karabakh and pressed their offensive from the south.
On Thursday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader said Azerbaijani troops had advanced to within 5km (3 miles) of the strategically located town of Shushi just south of the main town Stepanakert, which sits on the main road linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.