At Least 29 Killed in Second Day of Heavy Fighting Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Armenian servicemen of the self-defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh fire an artillery shell towards Azeri forces from their positions in the town of Martakert in Armenian-seized Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh on April 3, 2016. Clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces rumbled on April 3, despite Baku announcing a ceasefire after …
VAHRAM BAGHDASARYAN/AFP via Getty Images

The border clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued on Monday, with at least 29 more deaths reported as both sides exchanged rocket and artillery fire.

Observers worried the conflict could escalate into a regional war that brings in larger powers like Russia and Turkey, the latter of which made a public commitment to give Azerbaijan all the help it needs to win.

Sky News on Tuesday quoted the independent Crisis Group saying it has not “seen anything like this since the ceasefire to the war in the 1990s.”

“The fighting is taking place along all sections of the front line,” said Crisis Group analyst Olesya Vartanyan. “If there are mass casualties it will be extremely difficult to contain this fighting and we will definitely see a full-fledged war that will have a potential intervention of Turkey or Russia, or both of them.”

The battle is being fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a mountainous breakaway province of majority-Muslim Azerbaijan that is heavily populated with majority-Christian Armenians. Armenia has been helping Nagorno-Karabakh function as a semi-autonomous state within Azerbaijan ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. A great deal of oil and gas flows through the region, making it a flashpoint of international concern.

According to Sky News, Monday’s count of 29 casualties came largely from the autonomous forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, which reported 27 soldiers killed plus two Azeri civilians. Azerbaijan had not released an official casualty report as of Tuesday morning, so the death toll is likely to rise.

Nagorno-Karabakh forces claimed to have killed at least 400 Azeri troops and destroyed several Azeri tanks and helicopters. Azerbaijan reports Armenian armored units suffered heavy losses while trying to recapture two positions along the front line. None of these casualty claims have been independently confirmed.

The BBC on Tuesday said Azerbaijan has confirmed a total of seven civilian deaths, bringing the combined military and civilian casualty count to almost 100 after three days of fighting. The 1988-1994 war in the region killed some 30,000 people.

The fighting is no longer confined to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have reported artillery strikes deeper into their respective territories, although both sides also deny conducting such attacks. The two sides officially agree only that battles of varying “intensity” have occurred along the front lines. Both sides have declared martial law and are mobilizing more troops for the conflict.

The cause of the rapidly-escalating conflict is not entirely clear. Numerous skirmishes have been fought since the 1994 ceasefire, but as the Crisis Group noted, none have escalated to the brink of open war as quickly as this one. Al Jazeera News suggested the isolated nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh region helped to create a heavy “information warfare” environment, filled with propaganda from both sides, in which few details can be independently verified.

Both sides claim outside forces are already involved in the conflict, with evidence to back up their claims. Russia generally supports Armenia and has a military base there, although it has also cultivated ties with ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, Turkey energetically supports Azerbaijan and has vowed to take all measures necessary to assist it.

Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh officials say Turkey is already sending allied Syrian militia into the conflict zone. The U.K. Guardian reported on Monday that a private Turkish security company spent the past month enlisting Syrian rebel fighters to work as “border guards” in Azerbaijan, with no shortage of applicants for the position, as mercenary work is appealing to hardened fighters in poverty-stricken Syria.

“The Turkish people stand with their Azeri brothers with all our means, as always,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday.

Erdogan denounced Armenia as “the biggest threat to peace in the region,” called on “the entire world to stand with Azerbaijan in their battle against invasion and cruelty,” and criticized Western nations as hypocrites for failing to intervene against what he described as Armenian aggression. He said peace will only return to the region if Armenian forces withdraw and full control of Nagorno-Karabakh is returned to Azerbaijan.

Voice of America News (VOA) reported on Tuesday that Armenian officials claim Turkish military “experts” are already “fighting side by side with Azerbaijan,” while the Turkish government refused to comment on troop deployments.  

Turkish military analyst Ilhan Uzgel told VOA that Azerbaijan does not need Turkish troops on the front line, but enjoys “technical assistance” from Turkey, including arms sales, logistical advice, and armed drone deployments. 

Uzgel predicted Turkey could become more deeply involved in the conflict if Russia intervenes on the Armenian side, although he said Turkey wishes to avoid direct conflict with the Russians if possible. Turkey recently conducted some aerial military exercises that seem intended to let Armenia know that Turkish air support could be quickly made available to Azerbaijan.

VOA quoted a senior Turkish energy official saying the oil and gas pipelines running through Azerbaijan are a “core energy security issue for Turkey,” so Ankara is prepared to “take any relevant measures” to secure them. On the other hand, Uzgel said Russia is unlikely to tolerate Turkey expanding its strategic influence in the Caucasus region.

Russia on Tuesday urged “all sides, especially partner countries such as Turkey, to do all they can for a ceasefire and get back to a peaceful settlement of this conflict using political and diplomatic means.”

“Any statements about some kind of support and military activity undoubtedly add fuel to the flames. We are categorically against this,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on both sides to “stop the violence” and “return to substantive negotiations as quickly as possible.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an “immediate cease-fire and return to the negotiating table” in telephone conversations with both sides. Britain and Canada issued a joint statement likewise calling for “the immediate end of hostilities, respect for the cease-fire agreement, and the protection of civilians.”

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked both President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pahsinian of Armenia to immediately cease hostilities and “return to meaningful negotiations without preconditions or delay.”

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