Armenia blames Azeris for renewed ‘war’ around disputed region

Heavier clashes hit Nagorno-Karabakh as Russia-Turkey row puts south Caucasus on edge

Armenia said a ceasefire with Azerbaijan had effectively collapsed around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, as intensifying clashes there, and unease between regional powers Russia and Turkey, jangle nerves in the south Caucasus.

Azeri and Armenian forces have in recent weeks accused each other of firing heavy artillery along the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh, where no peace deal has been signed to end a 1988-1994 war that killed some 30,000 people.

Both countries routinely blame the other for breaking the truce in an area that was part of Azerbaijan during Soviet days, but broke away when the Soviet Union collapsed and its ethnic-Armenian majority refused to live under Baku’s rule.

“It’s war, and I would ask you to use a term like ‘war’ rather than phrases like ‘breach of the ceasefire regime’ because, effectively, there is no ceasefire regime any more,” Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan told reporters.

Rockets

He claimed had fired from tanks, rocket systems and howitzers at Armenian soldiers and troops from the separatist authorities that run Nagorno-Karabakh and seven districts seized from Azerbaijan during the war.

Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, countered: “Ceasefire violations are taking place because of the illegal presence of Armenian forces in the occupied lands of Azerbaijan. Armenia has to withdraw from the seized lands . . . only afterwards the sustainable peace can be guaranteed in the region.”

Earlier this month the US, Russia and France, which lead mediation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, said that with “the significant escalation in violence . . . this year, the status quo has become unsustainable.”

Remote and mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, which is home to about 150,000 people, relies for financial, diplomatic and military support on Armenia, which in turn leans heavily on Russia for trade ties and security guarantees.

Strained

Azerbaijan ploughed much of its considerable energy revenue into modernisation of its military and its main ally is Turkey, which has long had strained relations with Armenia and closed their shared border in 1993.

Regional tension has intensified since November 24th, when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane it claimed had repeatedly entered its airspace and ignored warnings to leave. One pilot was killed, and another Russian serviceman died in a failed rescue attempt in a firefight with Ankara-allied militia in northern Syria.

Moscow sent a warship and an advanced air-defence system to Syria to prevent a repeat, and imposed economic sanctions on Turkey.

Russia also twice reinforced its airbase in Armenia this month, deploying attack and transport helicopters to a facility just 20km (12 miles) from the Turkish border.

In Moscow yesterday, the Russian and Armenian ministers of defence signed a deal to create a joint air-defence system to monitor Caucasus airspace. Technical details of what the pact entails were not immediately available.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe

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