At least three soldiers have been killed by a fresh outbreak of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting international calls for an immediate de-escalation.
Two Armenian servicemen died and 14 others were wounded when Azerbaijani troops fired grenade launchers and used attack drones, in alleged violation of a ceasefire deal that halted a 2020 war, the army of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic said on Wednesday.
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The Azeri defence ministry, for its part, accused Armenia of having grossly violated the truce agreement by committing an act of sabotage that killed one of its soldiers.
It said Karabakh troops had targeted positions in the Lachin corridor, a strip of land that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia through Azerbaijan and which is under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers deployed to the region in the wake of the conflict two years ago.
“As a result, those fighting for the illegal Armenian armed formations were killed and injured,” the ministry said in a statement, demanding all Armenian troops pull out of the area and promising “crushing” countermeasures if necessary.
Baku said its forces had also beaten back an Armenian attempt to capture a hill in an area controlled by the Russian peacekeepers.
The Azerbaijani army later said it conducted an operation dubbed “Revenge” in response and took control of several strategic heights in the region.
In response, Armenia’s foreign ministry said Azerbaijan had violated the ceasefire by launching an attack in areas controlled by the peacekeepers. In a statement, it said Yerevan wanted the international community “to undertake measures towards halting the aggressive behaviour and actions of Azerbaijan”.
Calls for de-escalation
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a decades-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994.
The 2020 conflict, which killed more than 6,500 people in a little over six weeks, saw Azerbaijan successfully win back swaths of territory that had been controlled by the separatists. The war ended after Russia, which has a military base in Armenia, brokered a peace deal in November of that year and deployed almost 2,000 peacekeepers to the region.
But both sides have since accused each other of regular breaches of the agreement.
Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, said there had been “increasing tension” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in recent months linked to the failure to broker a peace treaty following the 2020 ceasefire deal.
“There’s a lot of frustration – there’s frustration in Baku because it feels as if it is trying to move forwards on signing a peace treaty, which both sides have agreed to do,” Bryza told Al Jazeera from Istanbul.
“But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who also sincerely seems to want to sign the peace treaty, is being blocked by his own domestic political opponents, who periodically have staged big street protests and claim that he essentially committed treason by agreeing to a ceasefire in November 2020,” he added.
“So there are all sorts of forces beneath the surface on both sides that want to keep the pot stirred even as the national leaders want to get to a peace treaty.”
The latest bout of fighting drew an immediate international response, with the European Union calling for an end to hostilities and urging both sides to respect the ceasefire deal, a plea echoed by the Polish chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The United States also called for “immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation”.
“The United States is deeply concerned by and closely following reports of intensive fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, including casualties and the loss of life,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the US State Department, said.
Meanwhile, Russia said the situation in the areas controlled by its peacekeepers was getting more tense and reported at least one violation of the ceasefire by Azeri forces.
“The command of the Russian peacekeeping force, with representatives of Azerbaijan and Armenia, are taking measures to stabilise the situation,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
In July, Azerbaijan began the process of returning its people to land recaptured from Armenian separatists in what Baku calls “The Great Return”.
The oil-rich country has pledged to repopulate the retaken territories. President Ilham Aliyev had for years promised to recapture lands lost in the 1990s and the first returns marked a symbolic moment for Azerbaijan.