YREVAN | Azerbaijan and Armenia have been uncompromising and determined to fight after four days of bloody clashes in Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway Azerbaijani territory backed by Yerevan, ignoring international calls for a ceasefire.
After visiting wounded soldiers in a martial hospital, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev vowed to continue the fight until the “full, unconditional and prompt withdrawal” of the Armenian forces.
If “Armenia accepts this condition, the fighting will stop, the blood will stop shedding,” Aliyev said, according to images broadcast on television.
Earlier, Azerbaijani diplomacy informed the mediators in this conflict, the countries of the Minsk Group (Russia, United States, France) formed within the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), that Baku was determined to continue its “legitimate military operation”.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, meanwhile, closed the door to negotiations in the morning, deeming it “inappropriate” to discuss a possible peace summit “while intense fighting is underway”.
Hours earlier, a unanimous UN Security Council called for an end to hostilities and resumption of talks.
Russia, one of the most influential countries in the South Caucasus, has repeatedly called unsuccessfully for an end to the fighting, which maintains cordial relations with the two belligerents, former Soviet republics. Armenia, however, is part of a Moscow-dominated military alliance, which in turn supplies arms to both sides.
“War to death”
These clashes, the most serious since 2016, raise fears of an open war between Baku and Yerevan, capable of destabilizing an already volatile area where the interests of many powers are in competition.
Russia, France and the United States, which have co-chaired the Minsk Group since 1992, have failed to find a lasting settlement to the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, a territory mostly populated by Armenians who seceded from Azerbaijan. A war in the early 1990s left 30,000 dead there.
According to official reports, probably very partial, the large-scale fighting that broke out on Sunday claimed the lives of 103 people, including 81 Armenian separatist fighters and 22 civilians.
Azerbaijan has reported no loss in the ranks of its army and both sides are blaming each other for the hostilities.
An AFP journalist witnessed the burial of a fallen soldier in the Azerbaijani region of Beylagan, a few dozen kilometers from the front line.
In front of a military police station in Yerevan, dozens of men of all ages were preparing to go to fight or offering to help.
“It is a war to the death and we must go to the end,” an Armenian volunteer, a 63-year-old educator, told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Scenes of similar fervor were taking place in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, for its part, reported “intense fighting” and assured that, since the weekend, 2,300 Armenian separatists had been killed.
While accusing enemy forces of targeting civilian positions, he claims the destruction of 130 tanks, 200 artillery pieces, 25 anti-aircraft batteries as well as S-300 surface-to-air missiles.
The Armenian Ministry of Defense claimed “137 tanks and armored vehicles destroyed, 72 drones, seven helicopters and a war plane shot down. 790 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and 1900 wounded ”.
All of this data was unverifiable from an independent source.
In both countries, bellicose rhetoric has fueled patriotic fervor in recent months. Mobilization and martial law were decreed there on Sunday.
Azerbaijan says it has obtained territorial gains and disrupted Armenian supply lines. On the contrary, Nagorny Karabakh claims to have regained lost positions.
Risk of internationalization
For its part, Armenia claimed on Tuesday that a Turkish fighter-bomber supporting Azerbaijan shot down one of its air force planes, which Ankara and Baku immediately denied.
Yerevan again accused Wednesday “the Turkish air force of carrying out provocative flights” along the Armenian-Turkish border.
A direct Turkish military intervention would constitute a major turning point and an internationalization of the conflict, a possible catastrophe scenario.
Turkey is the only power not to call for a ceasefire, inciting its Azerbaijani ally to take back Karabakh by force and scolding Armenia, its historical adversary.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday “not to support the appeals” of Turkey, with which Moscow has a complicated but pragmatic relationship, repeating that it must refrain from “adding fuel to the fire”.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, condemned Ankara’s “reckless and dangerous” statements.
“We are on the verge of a full-scale war, maybe even regionally,” worries analyst Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group.