Armenia rejects talks as fighting rages with Azerbaijan

Yerevan (AFP) –


Armenia on Wednesday rejected Russian offers to mediate peace talks with arch-rival Azerbaijan as fighting raged for a fourth day over the breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh.

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are engaged in the heaviest clashes in years over Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian province that broke away from Azerbaijan during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

The long-simmering conflict erupted on Sunday with the two sides trading heavy fire and blaming each other for the outbreak of violence.

Nearly 100 people are confirmed to have died in the most recent flare-up and both sides are claiming to have inflicted heavy losses on opposing forces.

There has been increasing international pressure for a ceasefire as fears grow that the conflict could escalate into a devastating all-out war and draw in regional powers like Turkey and Russia.

Moscow, which has a military pact with Armenia but also good ties with Azerbaijan, has repeatedly called for an end to the fighting and offered to help with negotiations.

But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Wednesday that talks with Azerbaijan were not yet on the table.

"It isn't very appropriate to speak of a summit between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia at a time of intensive hostilities," Pashinyan told Russia's Interfax news agency.

"A suitable atmosphere and conditions are needed for negotiations."

He said that Yerevan "at this point" is not planning to ask for intervention in the conflict by a Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization that comprises several former Soviet republics including Armenia.

There has been no let-up in the fighting since the weekend, with both sides reporting new clashes on Wednesday.

- 'Intense fighting continuing' -

Officials in both countries have made claims of huge losses for the other side, but these have not been possible to verify.

Azerbaijan has released no information on its military casualties, while the Armenian side has registered 81 deaths. A total of 17 civilians have been reported dead by both sides.

Azerbaijan's defence ministry said Wednesday that "intense fighting was continuing", claiming that its forces have killed 2,300 Karabakh separatist troops since hostilities broke out.

The ministry said its troops had "destroyed 130 tanks, 200 artillery units, 25 anti-aircraft units, five ammunition depots, 50 anti-tank units, 55 military vehicles".

It said Karabakh's separatists forces had "shelled the city of Terter, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure."

Karabakh's defence ministry, for its part, said Azerbaijani forces "continued artillery shelling" of separatist positions along the frontline on Wednesday morning.

The two sides have accused each other of targeting civilian areas, including in areas away from Karabakh.

Yerevan is also claiming that Turkey, a longstanding ally of Azerbaijan, is providing direct military support for Baku.

It said on Tuesday that a Turkish fighter jet shot down an Armenian warplane, but Ankara and Baku denied the claim.

Karabakh's declaration of independence from Azerbaijan sparked a war in the early 1990s that claimed 30,000 lives, but it is still not recognised as independent by any country, including Armenia.

Armenia and Karabakh declared martial law and military mobilisation Sunday, while Azerbaijan imposed military rule and a curfew in large cities.

France, Russia and the United States have mediated peace efforts as the "Minsk Group", but the last big push for a peace deal collapsed in 2010.