Fighting flares between Azerbaijan and Armenia

  • >>Andrew E Kramer, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-09-28 02:18:46 BdST

A still image from a video released by the Armenian Defence Ministry shows what is said to be Azerbaijani tanks and service members during at attack in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in this still image from footage released September 27, 2020. Defence Ministry of Armenia/Handout via REUTERS

Fighting that was reported to be fierce broke out Sunday between Azerbaijan and Armenia and quickly escalated, with the two sides claiming action with artillery, helicopter and tanks along a disputed border.

The military action centred on the breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian separatist enclave in Azerbaijan. Ethnic tensions and historical grievances in the mountainous area north of Turkey and Iran have made kindling for conflict for decades.

The fighting Sunday, however, was reportedly more severe than the typical periodic border skirmishes, and both governments used military language describing the events as war. Before Sunday, the last major escalation was in 2016.

This year, a small flare-up in July went almost ignored. The mediators of a diplomatic settlement process, France, the United States and Russia, are distracted and increasingly at odds over other issues, analysts say. The conflict simmered, all but forgotten, until Sunday.

“Horrible news” from the Caucasus, Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, wrote on Twitter. The fighting was “already a small war.” Both sides reported dead and wounded civilians.

“People are not happy,” Iosif Adamyan, a hotelier in the breakaway region’s capital, Stepanakert, said in a telephone interview after he awoke on a balmy fall morning to explosions, shooting and the rumble of tanks on the streets.

“The planet has enough problems already,” he said.

By early afternoon, Azerbaijan said its forces had advanced to capture seven villages and had surrounded an unspecified number of Armenian troops it was threatening to kill if they did not surrender. Armenia claimed it was holding fast and had destroyed Azerbaijani tanks and helicopters.

Also worrying observers was that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was more openly backing Azerbaijan than during previous escalations, positioning Turkey and Russia on opposite sides of a second conflict in the region similar to their divisions over the Syrian civil war. Erdogan blamed Armenia as “the biggest threat to peace in the region.”

Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, declared a state of emergency and mobilised the country’s male population.

“The enemy has started an attack,” he wrote on Facebook. He said, “This aggression was preplanned.”

Pashinyan said the military of the Karabakh region, which claims to be an independent state but is mostly unrecognised, had repelled an attack. In a televised address, Pashinyan said civilians had suffered but did not specify how many. In Karabakh, authorities said fighting had killed 16 of their soldiers and wounded about 100 more.

Azerbaijan said it was responding to cross-border artillery shelling. Its Ministry of Defence then issued a statement saying it had begun a “counterattack” with tanks, helicopters and rocket artillery.

In a statement carried by Russian news agencies, Azerbaijan said the military operation had destroyed “troops, military objects and equipment of the Armenian armed forces” near the border as well as deeper inside the country. It said it destroyed 12 short-range anti-aircraft installations in Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s state news agency, Azertac, carried a statement by President Ilham Aliyev airing grievances against Armenia, including an accusation that Armenia was settling members of its diaspora in the disputed Karabakh region.

“It is as a result of Armenia’s hypocritical, unconstructive and false policy that the negotiations have actually stopped” for a settlement to the long-running conflict, it said. “They are deliberately provoking us, and they will see the bitter consequences.”

In past flare-ups, both sides have exaggerated their successes and the scale of their enemies’ violations of cease-fire agreements, although the potential for a wider war has always been clear. The Karabakh region maintains a system to call up nearly its entire male population as minutemen, and this mobilisation was announced Sunday morning. Azerbaijan said 14 of its civilians had been killed or wounded.

Fighting in and around the Karabakh region, which Armenia calls Artsakh, was among the most vicious of the early post-Soviet conflicts. A cease-fire was declared in 1994, but violence has often flared up since. France, Russia and the United States mediate the cease-fire.

All three countries called Sunday for negotiations. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which is still spreading uncontrolled in the region. Armenia reported 226 new cases in the past day and Azerbaijan 130.

Moscow sells weapons to both sides and has also brokered cease-fire agreements, but its military posture in the region favours Armenia, where Russia has a military base. The Armenian diaspora in France and the United States has aided the Karabakh region, including by financing construction of a strategic mountain access road.

The war in Karabakh is one of the half-dozen so-called frozen conflicts of the former Soviet Union that got caught in eddies of ethnic violence or great power competition. These six de facto independent states — small territories in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan — exist alongside the 15 former Soviet nations but are mostly unrecognised.

Karabakh is distinct from the others for the depth of the ethnic enmity between the sides and because Russia has played a role as a mediator more than instigator. It is the only frozen conflict zone not occupied by Russian troops.

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