Azerbaijan battles Armenian separatists in disputed enclave

Russia and US call for restraint over escalation in fighting over Nagorno Karabakh

In this 2012 photograph, an Armenian soldier of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabagh aims at the border with Azerbaijan. AFP PHOTO / KAREN MINASYAN

In this 2012 photograph, an Armenian soldier of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabagh aims at the border with Azerbaijan. AFP PHOTO / KAREN MINASYAN


As Ukrainian troops closed in on pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk at the weekend, military tensions were building in the South Caucasus, another former Soviet region torn by separatist violence.

An escalation in fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the contested enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has claimed the lives of at least 15 servicemen in the past few days, prompting Russia and the United States to issue calls for both sides to show restraint.

The current conflict has its origins in a brutal war in the early 1990s when Armenian- backed separatists seized control of Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan as the region reeled from the collapse of Soviet authority.

A ceasefire brokered by Russia in 1994 brought a fragile peace, although the two sides frequently exchange fire across a buffer zone around the disputed territory.

As the death toll rose at the weekend, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of provoking the outburst of violence.

Azerbaijan said Armenian “reconnaissance and sabotage groups had once again tried to attack Azeri positions at the line of contact”.

Armenia said Azerbaijan had risked the outbreak of large-scale military hostilities by firing grenades and mortars at Nagorno Karabakh and claimed the authorities in Baku “had lost all sense of reality”.

A glimmer of hope emerged on Saturday after Armenia said its president, Serzh Sarkisian, would meet his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, for talks late this week in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

In a statement yesterday, Russia’s foreign affairs ministry expressed “serious concern” about the escalation in violence and the “significant number” of casualties.

“We call on all sides in the conflict to show restraint, refrain from using force and take immediate steps to stabilize the situation,” it said.

US urges action The US urged Azerbaijan and Armenia to take immediate action to reduce tensions.“Retaliation and further violence will only make it more difficult to bring about a peaceful settlement,” said Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson for the US state department.

International energy experts were watching developments closely amid concern that the violence could spin out of control and threaten the security of pipelines that transport Caspian oil and gas across the South Caucasus to the west.

Azerbaijan has invested billions of dollars of its oil windfall bolstering its defence capability and has pledged to take back Nagorno Karabakh by force if necessary. Armenia has looked to Russia, which maintains a military base on its territory, as a guarantor of its security.

The sudden surge in tensions comes as Russia and the west are locked in confrontation over the future of Ukraine that could complicate international efforts to find a resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh dispute.

Russia, a co-chair with the US and France of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk committee that has been overseeing the talks since the 1994 ceasefire is seen as critical to the peace process.

Armenia has used the Ukrainian crisis to bolster ties with the Kremlin, recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea and pledging to join the Moscow- led Eurasian Union of former Soviet states.