Azerbaijan has rejected a statement by an Armenian official saying Turkey had sent fighters from Syria to support Azerbaijani forces amid intensifying fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Interfax and RIA news agencies on Tuesday quoted Vardan Toganyan, Armenia’s ambassador to Russia, as saying Ankara had sent some 4,000 fighters from northern Syria to its close ally, Azerbaijan.
The ambassador said the fighters were taking part in the battles in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region inside Azerbaijan that is run by ethnic Armenians with the backing of Yerevan.
An aide to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev swiftly denied the reports.
“Rumours of militants from Syria allegedly being redeployed to Azerbaijan is another provocation by the Armenian side and complete nonsense,” said Khikmet Gadzhiev.
Heavy fighting has continued overnight between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 28, 2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday promised Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan and called Armenia “the biggest threat to peace in the region”. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hit back, urging the international community to ensure Turkey does not get involved in the conflict.
In Syria’s long-running war, Turkey backs rebels trying to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran. In recent years, Turkey has seized control of some northern Syrian border towns in cross-border operations to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters, considered “terrorists” by Ankara.
On Monday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Armenia must “send back the mercenaries and terrorists it brought from abroad”.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, who has covered developments in the region extensively, said: “Both sides have claimed that mercenaries are involved in the fighting.”
“The Azerbaijanis appear to have responded to claims that they have employed Syrian militias to come to Azerbaijan and participate by saying that Armenia is doing the same thing, that there are pro-Armenian groups within Syria that could be involved,” he said from Tbilisi, Georgia, noting that similar reports had circulated following a previous outbreak of violence in July.
“One has to treat these claims with caution, of course, until the facts begin to prove it, which presumably would mean when either side is able to recover bodies or take as prisoners people who are neither from Azerbaijan or Armenia,” added Forestier-Walker.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijani and Armenian forces on Monday exchanged fire for a second day, each side accusing the other of using heavy artillery.
The battles, the heaviest since 2016, have reignited concern over stability in the South Caucasus region, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said a total of six Azerbaijani civilians had been killed and 19 wounded since the fighting began on Sunday morning.
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that more than 30 of its military personnel had been killed and at least 100 wounded. It also said it had recovered some territory it had lost control of on Sunday, and said Azerbaijan had been using heavy artillery to shell areas.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Armenian forces were shelling the town of Terter.
The clashes have prompted a flurry of diplomacy to defuse the reignited tensions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Pashinyan in an attempt to prevent further escalation, the Kremlin said. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meanwhile was in intensive talks with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to reach a return to negotiations.
Iran also offered to mediate, as it has done in the past.
United Nations, European Union and Council of Europe leaders also called the two sides to immediately halt military action.