Major powers have intensified diplomatic efforts to end fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh, as deadly shelling continued amid warnings that the conflict could spark a regional war.
Russian, US and French diplomats met on Thursday to discuss the crisis, as the Azeris demanded that all Armenian forces leave Nagorno-Karabakh and Yerevan again accused Azerbaijan's chief ally Turkey of playing a key role in the conflict.
The mountainous region inside Azerbaijan's internationally recognised borders has been run by its ethnic Armenian majority since a war in the 1990s. While Turkey staunchly supports mostly Muslim Azerbaijan, Russia has a military base in Armenia and obligations under a security treaty to defend the majority Christian state from any foreign attack.
More than 400 people have been killed in 12 days of clashes, and as the diplomats met in Geneva, several journalists – including Russians – were injured when shells struck a cathedral in the town of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia blamed Azeri forces, but officials in Baku denied their involvement.
In a call to Azeri prime minister Ali Asadov, Russian premier Mikhail Mishustin called for "the swift stabilisation of the situation . . . a halt to military action and the relaunch of the negotiation process", over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has insisted that his country would fulfil its obligations to Armenia as a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led group of six ex-Soviet states. He noted, however, that hostilities are currently confined to Nagorno-Karabakh and other parts of Azerbaijan.
Stanislav Zas, general-secretary of the CSTO, said he believed the fighting would not spread to the territory of Armenia and so trigger the group's mutual defence clause:
“I don’t think Azerbaijan or Armenia need the conflict to flare up to regional level, nor is that in the interests of any other country.”
Mr Zas raised concern about the alleged presence of foreign fighters in the conflict zone, after Armenia accused Turkey of sending "jihadists" from Syria to join the Azeri ranks; France and Russia have made similar claims, which Ankara and Baku deny.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Qatari media on Thursday that Ankara would "continue to support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means".
“Azerbaijan’s decision to solve this problem, which has been inconclusive for years . . . is a necessity of history, law and the facts of geography,” he said of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which years of mediation led by the US, France and Russia have failed to resolve.
Calling Armenia the “biggest obstacle to peace, stability and tranquility in the region,” Mr Erdogan said Yerevan’s accusations against Turkey showed “that it wants to create a wide-scale conflict”.
Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said his ethnic kin would face the threat of "genocide" if Turkish-backed Azerbaijan retook Nagorno-Karabakh – evoking memories of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.
Baku insists it is ready to negotiate a settlement – once all Armenian forces have left the “occupied territory”.