Fatal clashes have broken out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, prompting the latter to declare martial law and order the complete mobilisation of its army in a move that Turkey warned will “throw the region into fire”.
Both sides claimed that the other had launched the first attack in the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, with Armenia saying its troops had shot down two Azerbaijani helicopters and destroyed three tanks in response to an air and artillery attack on civilians.
Azerbaijan said it had merely responded to Armenian shelling, replying to the threat of escalation by saying it saw no need for total military mobilisation because its army is already fully staffed.
Armenian human rights groups said two civilians, a woman and a child were killed in in the onslaught, while Azerbaijan said several of its civilians had been killed and six had been wounded.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly ethnic Armenian region inside Azerbaijan that declared independence in 1991, declared 10 of its military staff dead, announced martial law and mobilised the male population, as civilians living in the region were told to take cover.
Russia, Turkey and France called for swift de-escalation, amid grave concern over a reignited conflict in the South Caucasus, a corridor for pipelines transporting oil and gas to world markets.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, whose country has mediated in decades of conflict between majority Christian Armenia and mainly Muslim Azerbaijan, spoke by phone with his counterparts in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, urging both sides to cease fire immediately and hold talks.
Meanwhile, Turkey sided with Azerbaijan, with President Erdogan urging the Armenian people to “take hold of their future against their leadership that is dragging them to catastrophe, and those using it like puppets”.
“The biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the Caucasus is the hostile stance of Armenia and it must immediately turn back from this hostility that will send the region into fire,” said Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, adding that Ankara would support Baku with “all its resources”.
France called on the nations to immediately restart a dialogue, as did the Pope, who said he was praying for peace.
The Armenian defence ministry said a Baku-led ambush against civilian settlements, including in the regional capital of Stepanakert, began at 4.10am GMT on Sunday.
“Our response will be proportionate and the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan bears full responsibility for the situation”, the Armenian defence ministry said in a statement.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said in response that it had launched a military operation along the “contact line,” a heavily mined no-man’s-land that separates the Armenian-backed forces from Azeri troops in the region, Russian news agencies reported.
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The two former Soviet countries have been in conflict for almost three decades following Azerbaijan’s breakaway, mainly over the ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and border clashes have intensified in recent months.
Armenia’s foreign ministry condemned the “aggression of the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan” and said the Armenian side would deliver an apt military and political response.
Azerbaijan’s ministry of defence said on its official website, at GMT 9.10am on Sunday morning: “Our troops have launched a counter-offensive along the entire front.”
The post continued: “In order to prevent the combat activity of the Armenian armed forces and ensure the security of the civilian population, the command of the Azerbaijani army has decided to launch a counter-offensive along the entire front.
“Our personnel and tank units, with the support of missile and artillery units, frontline aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, detect and destroy a large number of Armenian forces, military facilities and military equipment located on the front line and in the depths of defence.
“According to the information received, 12 OSA anti-aircraft missile systems of the Armenian air defence units were destroyed in different directions. A combat helicopter of the Azerbaijani air force was shot down in the direction of Tartar; the crew members are alive.
“The rapid counter-offensive of our troops continues.”
A report by The Independent in August revealed that both regions were engaged in a deadly arms race, with each publicly admitting to purchasing £39m-a-piece Russian Su-30SM fighter jets.
Artak Beglaryan, a human rights ombudsman in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, tweeted about the attack, citing reports of multiple deaths and injuries. “A woman and child were killed,” Mr Beglaryan wrote, adding: “Some schools have also been targeted. There are other civilian casualties too.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan’s seemingly intractable conflict is rooted in century-old Communist social-engineering schemes. Ethnic and nationalistic tensions between the newly independent states spilled over into all-out war (1992-1994) over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave – a landlocked 1,700-square-mile piece of territory controlled by Armenia, with a population of 3 million, but surrounded and claimed by Azerbaijan, a nation of 9 million people.
Though a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia have frequently accused each other of attacks around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the separate Azeri-Armenian frontier.
A war in 2016 resulted in more than 100 deaths, mostly military personnel but also some civilians. Each side accused the other of sparking the conflict. Russia quickly brokered a ceasefire, and the fighting ended in days.
The almost 30-year conflict between the two nations was first waged with small arms and rusting Soviet-era mortars. But thanks to years of arms purchases, both countries now have formidable arsenals of modern tanks, howitzer artillery cannons, unmanned drones and sophisticated anti-aircraft units – making any confrontation far more dangerous.