Armenia has declared martial law and called up army reservists after clashes escalated with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing several people on Sunday.
Both sides blamed each other for starting the fighting in the Caucasus Mountains, the worst since a five-day war in 2016 in which more than 100 people died. Armenia’s defence ministry said it shot down two Azeri helicopters and hit three tanks and three drones in response to an air offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“For the fatherland, for victory,” Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote on Twitter. “We stay strong next to our army to protect our motherland from Azeri invasion.”
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said it was taking “retaliatory measures” to protect civilians from “large-scale provocations” by Armenia in civilian areas near Nagorno-Karabakh that caused “serious” damage to infrastructure. It claimed to have destroyed 12 Armenian anti-aircraft systems while losing one Azeri helicopter.
The government moved to limit internet access in Azerbaijan “to prevent large-scale provocations by Armenia,” the communications ministry said.
The Armenian-backed government of Nagorno-Karabakh said that ten soldiers and two civilians were killed, blaming Azerbaijan for shelling in the area.
“The attack was coming. There were numerous signals, all saw them and did nothing for weeks,” Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst on the region for the International Crisis Group, wrote on Twitter. “There was a need for a proactive international mediation. Many found reasons to OK this attack. If they stay silent now, expect a real war.”
The European Union called for an immediate ceasefire and an “urgent” return to international negotiations to settle the long-running conflict, one of the most bloody that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sunday’s fighting was the latest flare-up in the decades-long struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave of less than 150,000 people that lies within Azerbaijan’s borders but broke away from Azerbaijan and runs its affairs with political and military support from Yerevan.
The war began in the early 1990s when ethnic Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh fought against mostly Muslim Azerbaijan’s control, and claimed thousands of lives before a ceasefire was signed in 1994. The region is an important source of European energy supplies via a pipeline that runs through Turkey.
Despite mediation from western powers and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been unable to reach a full peace settlement and regularly renew skirmishes along the line of contact. At least 20 people died in clashes in July about 300km north of the enclave.
Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, said in a televised address to the nation on Sunday that the fighting “is a serious blow to the peace process,” according to Interfax. “Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” he said. “The enemy has tried to provoke us once again today, and I declare that our opponents will get the punishment they deserve.”
Russia, the main mediator in the conflict and a close ally of Armenia, said there was “intensive firing from both sides of the line of contact”. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was in “intensive contacts” with both sides “to immediately cease fire and begin negotiations to stabilise the situation,” it added.
Turkey, Azerbaijan’s biggest backer, said Armenia was responsible for a “clear violation of international law” and had “proved once again that it is the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the region,” according to a foreign ministry statement.
Hopes for reconciliation rose in 2018 when Mr Pashinyan, a former journalist, overthrew a “Karabakh clan” that had tightly controlled Armenia and supported the enclave in a revolution.
Armenia and Azerbaijan declared early last year they would “prepare the population for peace” and worked to defuse front-line shooting incidents.
Mr Pashinyan, however, continued to visit Nagorno-Karabakh several times, including for the inauguration of its new president in May.
The lack of progress in the peace process has put increased domestic pressure on Azerbaijan after a major-general, Polad Hashimov, was killed in this summer’s clashes. He was the highest-ranking Azeri officer to die in the conflict since the early 1990s.
More than 30,000 pro-war protesters demanded that Azerbaijan “end the quarantine and start the war” after a soldier’s funeral in Baku, the capital, and broke into the parliament building with little opposition from police. Mr Aliyev then sacked his foreign minister over “useless negotiations” with the World Health Organization to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic in Karabakh.