Armenia and Azerbaijan were on the brink of war on Sunday, with renewed fighting in the Yerevan-backed breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno Karabakh killing at least 24 people, an escalation that causes international concern.
As Moscow delivers arms to the two countries and acts as regional arbiter, President Vladimir Putin has called for “avoiding an escalation” and “ending hostilities”, the worst in this disputed area since April 2016, when 110 people had been killed.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also called for “an immediate end to the fighting (…) and an immediate return to meaningful negotiations”.
He intends to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Washington, in the wake, called on the two parties to “immediately cease hostilities”.
The belligerents reject the responsibility for the fighting. Mr. Pachinian accused his historical enemy of having “declared war on the Armenian people” by attacking Nagorny Karabakh, a separatist region in Azerbaijan, populated mainly by Armenians and which has escaped Baku’s control since the fall of the USSR.
Ilham Aliev denounced him an Armenian “aggression” which he promised to “defeat”.
The two camps have been exchanging artillery fire since morning, have deployed armored vehicles and Azerbaijan has carried out aerial bombardments.
Authorities in Karabakh have admitted losing 17 soldiers and more than 100 others were injured. Two civilians were also killed.
Baku has not released a record for its military, but has reported the death of an Azerbaijani family of five.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense has claimed to have conquered half a dozen villages under Armenian control, information denied by Yerevan. Baku also claimed the capture of a strategic height.
The president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Karabakh, Araïk Haroutiounian, nevertheless admitted that “positions have been lost”.
The Armenian Ministry of Defense assured him that “about 200 Azerbaijani soldiers died”. These claims were unverifiable from an independent source.
A major conflict involving Azerbaijan, near Ankara, and Armenia, near Moscow, could lead to the intervention of rival powers in the Caucasus region, Russia and Turkey. Clashes around Nagorno Karabakh have fueled regional tensions for more than thirty years.
As early as Sunday, the Armenian Prime Minister denounced Turkish “interference” in the conflict, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan having promised to help Baku “with all (his) means” in the face of Armenia’s “aggression”.
The separatists also accused Ankara of supplying arms and mercenaries.
In the wake of Moscow, France, mediator of the conflict with Russia and the United States within the framework of the Minsk Group, called for an end to hostilities, as did Brussels and Berlin.
Neither side has given a detailed explanation for this outbreak of violence, each claiming to have responded to the other’s provocations.
The two camps also broadcast images of the destruction inflicted on the enemy: Azerbaijani tanks on fire, missiles hitting Armenian devices …
The two countries also declared martial law, Yerevan even decreeing general mobilization. In Baku and other major Azerbaijani cities, a nighttime curfew has been ordered.
In the center of the Armenian capital, several dozen volunteers gathered on Sunday afternoon to go to the front. The authorities handed them uniforms before leading them to the conflict zone, some 300 km to the east.
“We expected Azerbaijan to start a war (…), they talked about it all the time with their war rhetoric. And we gathered here to help, to go and support our army, ”said one of the volunteers, Grigor Barekian, 29 years old.
Nagorno Karabakh was the scene of a war in the early 1990s that left 30,000 dead. Since then, Baku has wanted to regain control, while the peace talks have been paralyzed for years.
Clashes erupt there regularly, but rarely of such magnitude. In 2016, clashes almost degenerated into war.
Deadly clashes also opposed, in July 2020, Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Olesya Vartanyan, an expert from the International Crisis Group, said that this new escalation was due in part to the lack of international mediation, despite the summer crisis.
“Since the coronavirus, the conflict has been neglected (…) even after the July clashes,” she regretted.