Azerbaijan, Armenia clash amid diplomacy
BAKU/YEREVAN – Agence France Presse
REUTERS photoClashes continued in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region for a third day, during which Azerbaijan said Armenian forces killed three of its troops as it killed 30 Armenian troops after launching an attack on a command center, amid diplomatic efforts to ease the tension.
The Azeri Defense Ministry said three servicemen were killed when Armenians shelled their positions using mortars and grenade launchers. The ministry later in the day said its forces had destroyed an Armenian command center in the region and had killed 30 Armenian troops, while also destroying three tanks.
“In the event of continued Armenian provocations, we will launch a full-scale operation along the entire front line, using all kinds of weapons,” ministry spokesman Vagif Dargahly told journalists.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said if the fighting continued on a large scale, his country would formally recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as independent from Azerbaijan and formalize Armenian military aid to the separatists.
Separately, the rebels, in a statement from their unrecognized capital of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, said Azeri troops “intensified shelling of the Karabakh army positions on Monday [April 4] morning, using 152-millimeter mortars, rocket-propelled artillery and tanks.”
In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the rebels “seriously advanced at certain sectors of the front line and took up new positions.” The report was quickly dismissed as “untrue” by Azerbaijan.
The Azeri Defense Ministry said it was in control of several strategic heights in Karabakh that were captured by Azeri troops on April 2.
Azerbaijan warned Armenia against targeting civilians in one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence between the former Soviet republics since a 1994 peace treaty.
“If Armenian forces continue targeting settlements and civilians, Armenia will bear the responsibility for the actions of Azerbaijani army, which will ensure the safety of civilians,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev said in a statement.
He said Armenia continued to shell Azerbaijani positions “intensively” despite Azerbaijan declaring a cease-fire on April 3.
There was no sign that the flare-up in fighting could be quickly contained, despite calls from world powers for an immediate halt to the fighting.
Russia and the West appealed to all sides for restraint after the fighting erupted on the night on April 1.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the dispute in Karabakh could not be solved through war, adding that a statement by Ankara expressing strong support for Azerbaijan was “one-sided.”
French Foreign Minister Marc Ayrault said the Minsk Group would meet on April 5 in Vienna to discuss the dispute.
A return to war would destabilize a region that is a crossroads for strategically important oil and gas pipelines. It could also drag in the big regional powers, Russia and Turkey. Moscow has a defense alliance with Armenia, while Ankara backs Azerbaijan.
Iran on April 4 urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to show restraint and offered its help.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will do anything to help ease the crisis,” Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said in a telephone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Zakir Hasanov.
Dehghan, quoted by state news agency IRNA, asked the two countries on Iran’s northwestern borders to “show restraint and … resolve the crisis by peaceful means.”
Clashes on April 2 killed at least 30 troops from both sides and two civilians.
On April 3, Azerbaijan said it had decided to “unilaterally cease hostilities” and pledged to “reinforce” several strategic positions it claimed to have captured inside the Armenian-controlled territory.
The authorities in Karabakh – which claims independence but is heavily backed by Armenia – said they were willing to discuss a cease-fire but only if it saw them regain their territory.
Ethnic Armenians backed by Yerevan seized control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was part of Azerbaijan during the Soviet period, during a war the early 1990s which claimed the lives of some 30,000 people.
A 1994 cease-fire failed to lead to a peace deal, with clashes erupting regularly and the two countries remaining on a war footing.
The region is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and the two sides frequently exchange fire across the front, but the latest episode marked a surge in violence and sparked frantic appeals for peace from international powers.