New clashes on Azerbaijan-Armenia border


Yerevan (AFP)

Clashes erupted again on Thursday between Azerbaijan and Armenia following a day-long lull along their shared border, dashing hopes of a rapid de-escalation in a crisis that has raised fears of a major flare-up.

At least 16 people on both sides have been killed since clashes erupted on Sunday between the ex-Soviet republics, locked for decades in a simmering conflict over Azerbaijan's separatist region of Nagorny Karabakh.

Ethnic Armenian separatists seized the territory in a 1990s war that claimed 30,000 lives, though the recent fighting broke out on a northern section of their shared border far from Karabakh.

Azerbaijani forces were "shelling Armenian villages with mortars and howitzers," Armenia's defence ministry spokeswoman Sushan Stepanyan said Thursday.

Its forces responded and "have destroyed the enemy's tank and artillery positions from which they were shelling Armenian villages," Stepanyan said later in the day.

The situation on the border has since "calmed down," Armenia's foreign ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan wrote on Facebook.

"We are in control of the situation," Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told a cabinet meeting, saying there were "killed and wounded among the enemy" troops but "no losses among our servicemen or civilians".

The defence ministry in Baku blamed Armenian forces for the renewed fighting saying in a statement that clashes were ongoing in the north after "Armenians shelled Azerbaijani villages with large-calibre weapons."

The latest fighting erupted after both sides observed a pause on Wednesday.

The clashes that broke out last week have prompted calls for an immediate de-escalation from the United States, the European Union and regional powerbroker Russia. Turkey meanwhile has spoken out in support of its ally Azerbaijan.

- Stalled negotiations -

An all-out war between the Caucasus neighbours could pit regional rivals Russia and Turkey against each other.

But analysts have said the risk is minimal, noting that neither party has territorial claims in the area of the fighting, which is far from Karabakh.

Armenia, which controls the disputed region, is happy with the status quo in Karabakh. The stalemate also suits Russia's ambitions of being a powerbroker between the former Soviet republics.

With most of the strategic heights along Karabakh's frontline under Armenians' control, Azerbaijan is not well positioned to initiate an attack, analysts said.

Mediated by the "Minsk Group" of diplomats from France, Russia and the United States, negotiations on the Karabakh conflict have been largely stalled since a 1994 ceasefire deal.

Moscow has a military alliance with Armenia, where it maintains a base. But Russia supplies both Yerevan and Baku with sophisticated weapons.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to win control over Karabakh by force after seeing diplomatic efforts to reclaim the territory fail.

Armenia has vowed to crush any military offensive.