Nagorno-Karabakh fighting raises threat of escalation

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Heavy fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh continued Thursday with Armenia and Azerbaijan trading blame for new attacks, hostilities that raised the threat of Turkey and Russia being drawn into the conflict.

Speaking in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that according to the information Russia has acquired, the combined deaths from nearly four weeks of fighting over the region are nearing 5,000. Putin emphasized the need to negotiate a truce quickly.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry accused Armenia of firing several ballistic missiles from its territory at the Azerbaijani cities of Gabala, Siyazan and Kurdamir, which are located far from the area of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. It said there were no casualties.

The Armenian military rejected the claim as a “cynical lie.”

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. The current fighting that started on Sept. 27 already has killed hundreds, marking the biggest escalation in the conflict since the war’s end.

Two Russia-brokered cease-fires collapsed instantly after taking effect, and the warring parties have continued to exchange blows with heavy artillery, rockets and drones.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said that to end hostilities Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. He has insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to reclaim its territory by force since nearly three decades of international mediation hasn’t yielded progress.

Russia, the United States and France have co-chaired the so-called Minsk Group set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate in the conflict, but their attempts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said Wednesday that Azerbaijan’s aggressive stance effectively amounts to the demand that the Nagorno-Karabakh region surrenders, leaving no room for diplomacy.

“There is no way now to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh issue through diplomacy,” Pashinian said, emphasizing that “there is no Armenia without Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Aliyev retorted in an interview Wednesday that “with this Armenian government, unfortunately, the prospect for a peaceful settlement is very remote.”

According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 900 of their troops have been killed, and more than 30 civilians. Azerbaijan hasn’t disclosed its military losses, but says 63 civilians have died and 292 have been wounded.

Putin, speaking Thursday during a video conference with international foreign policy experts, said Russia has information indicating that the combined death toll from the latest outbreak of fighting neared 5,000.

“No one is interested in settling the situation as much as Russia,” he said, pointing at Moscow’s close ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Russia, which has a military base in Armenia and a security pact obliging Moscow to protect its ally, has been involved in a delicate balancing act, trying to also maintain good ties with Azerbaijan and avoid a showdown with Turkey.

“For us, Armenia and Azerbaijan are equal partners, and it’s a huge tragedy for us to see people die,” Putin said.

The Armenian prime minister accused Turkey of encouraging Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and blocking any attempt at a cease-fire.

Turkey, a NATO member, has strongly defended its ally’s right to reclaim its lands by force, and jockeyed for a higher-profile diplomatic role in the conflict. Strike drones and long-range rocket systems supplied by Turkey in previous years have given the Azerbaijani military a strong edge on the battlefield.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay warned Wednesday that Ankara won’t hesitate to send troops to Azerbaijan if such a request is made by Baku.

“Azerbaijan and Turkey have agreements on military cooperation,” he said on CNN Turk. “ If Armenia takes unexpected steps and there is a request from Baku to send troops, Turkey will not hesitate.”

While Russia and Turkey disagree about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Putin emphasized strong ties between Moscow and Ankara.

A Russian lawmaker, Konstantin Zatulin, argued Thursday that Moscow should intervene militarily to protect Armenia, but the Kremlin dismissed the call.

Asked about Zatulin’s statement, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded that “there is no alternative to a peaceful settlement.”

Commenting on Turkey’s clamoring for a bigger mediation role in the conflict, Peskov said that such mediation must be accepted by both warring parties. Armenia has categorically rejected Turkey’s involvement because of its support for Azerbaijan.


Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Aida Sultanova in London, contributed to this report.