Separatists reject Azeri ceasefire claim on Nagorno-Karabakh

At least 30 dead as Armenian-backed troops and Azerbaijan clash over disputed region

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry has announced a unilateral ceasefire against the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the claim was promptly rejected by rebel forces.

Fighting in what has been a mostly dormant conflict for two decades flared up over the weekend with a boy and at least 30 troops killed on both sides. Each side blamed the other for Saturday’s escalation - the worst since the end of a full-scale war in 1994.

The defence ministry said, in response to pleas from international organisations, that it would be unilaterally “suspending a counter-offensive and response on the territories occupied by Armenia”.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a region within Azerbaijan, has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since a war ended in 1994 with no resolution of the region's status. The conflict is fuelled by long-simmering tensions between Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azeris.


Armenian forces also occupy several areas outside Nagorno-Karabakh proper. The sides are separated by a demilitarised buffer zone, but small clashes have broken out frequently.

Officials in the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh promptly disputed the reports of Azerbaijan's unilateral ceasefire. David Babayan, spokesman for the Karabakh president, said that they had not seen any signs that fighting was suspended.

The defence ministry of Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday also claimed to have restored control over a strategic area near the front line. It said Nagorno-Karabakh forces went on a counter-offensive around the village of Talish after Azeri forces shelled their positions just before dawn. Two Karabakh troops were reported injured.

It also said Azerbaijan was using rockets, artillery and armour against the region.

Earlier on Sunday, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s defence ministry, Vagif Dargyakhly, said Azeri positions came under fire overnight and that civilian areas were hit.

On Saturday, Armenia said 18 soldiers were killed and Azerbaijan reported 12 dead.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Sunday to back ally Azerbaijan in the conflict, saying the flare-up could have been avoided if "fair and decisive steps" had been taken.

“We pray our Azerbaijani brothers will prevail in these clashes with the least casualties,” he said.

The unresolved conflict has been an economic blow to Armenia because Turkey has closed its border with Armenia.

Azerbaijan's ambassador to Moscow earlier said Baku was willing to discuss a compromise with Yerevan once Armenian troops ended an occupation of what he said was 21 per cent of his country's territory.

"For 22 years there have been attempts for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. How many are possible? We are ready for a peaceful resolution to this issue, but if the peaceful route is not chosen, then we will take the military route," ambassador Polad Bulbuloglu told the Govorit Moscow radio station.

Criss-crossed with pipelines and sandwiched between the Caspian and Black seas, stability in the southern Caucasus is a major strategic objective for Azerbaijan and other large oil and gas producers in the region.

World top oil producer Russia - which maintains a garrison of troops, jets and attack helicopters in northern Armenia - has been a key mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and moved on Saturday to suppress the renewed violence.

Russian president Vladimir Putin urged the warring sides to immediately observe the ceasefire while Russia's foreign and defence ministers talked by phone with their Armenian and Azeri counterparts.

The Azeri presidential press service said Turkey, the other major power along with Russia in the region, had voiced support for Baku’s actions, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.

The United Nations said it was concerned about the reported use of heavy weapons in the conflict and civilian casualties.

“The secretary-general urges all relevant parties to put an immediate end to the fighting, fully respect the ceasefire agreement and take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation,” a UN spokesman said in a statement late on Saturday.