At least 99 killed in worst Azerbaijan-Armenia clashes in years

Relatives of servicemen who were wounded in night border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan gather outside a military hospital in Yerevan, on Sept 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

YEREVAN - Fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia on Tuesday, killing at least 99 troops in the deadliest clash between the Caucasus neighbours since they fought a war two years ago.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said at least 49 of his country's soldiers were killed in the fighting.

Hours later, Azerbaijan's defence ministry said in a statement that the country had lost 50 troops.

At Armenia's request, the United Nations Security Council agreed to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the issue, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.

The intensity of the clashes has subsided but Azerbaijan's attacks continue, Pashinyan told lawmakers, saying Armenia had appealed to Russia and other allies for help.

He spoke after the Russian Foreign Ministry urged Azerbaijan and Armenia to abide "in full" by a 9am cease-fire that Moscow said it had negotiated between the sides.

But that cease-fire appeared not to have held.

"What we want to see is the hostilities stop," US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington. "The Russians apparently brokered a cease-fire overnight that was almost immediately broken. Obviously, we want to see there be a cease-fire that can stay in effect."

Both sides blamed the other for starting the latest fighting. Armenia's Defence Ministry said Azerbaijani forces shelled towns in southern and central Armenia and also used drones in attacks.

Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry denied it started the attacks and said its forces responded to "large-scale Armenian provocation." It said earlier on Tuesday that the fighting started after Armenian sabotage groups placed landmines on Azerbaijani army supply lines along the border.

Worst since 2020

The fighting is the worst since thousands died on both sides in a 44-day war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that was halted in November 2020 when Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a truce.

The tensions have flared as Putin faces setbacks in his invasion of Ukraine, with Russian troops retreating under pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Pashinyan held phone calls with Putin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron, the premier's office said.

The US is deeply concerned about the clashes "including reported strikes against settlements and civilian infrastructure inside Armenia" and urges an immediate halt to hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Blinken said in a statement.

Relatives of servicemen who were wounded in night border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan gather outside a military hospital in Yerevan, on Sept 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Russia, the US and France are members of the so-called Minsk Group of mediators that have been trying for decades to negotiate a settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that erupted during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Armenia's security council appealed to Russia for assistance under a 1997 mutual-defence treaty, as well as to the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation of former Soviet states. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan also spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Russia has a military base in Armenia and sent 2,000 peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the truce that halted the 2020 war. During the fighting, Azerbaijan took control of part of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is mostly populated by Armenians but internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan's territory, and regained seven surrounding districts that Armenian troops had occupied since the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan's defence and foreign ministers held talks on the crisis with their Turkish counterparts. After Turkey helped Azerbaijan to win the 2020 war, the two allies signed a defence pact last year as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved to strengthen his influence in a region traditionally seen as part of Russia's backyard.

Turkey is "always on the side of Azerbaijan," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.

Despite the truce that Putin brokered, Azerbaijan and Armenia have yet to reach a peace agreement, even as the two sides have held talks to try to delineate their common border and open up transport routes.

Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met Aug 31 in Brussels as part of European Union efforts to reach a deal.

Aliyev has demanded the establishment of a corridor through southern Armenia to an Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey. That's been rejected by Pashinyan, who's said the truce accord only provides for the opening of transport links between the two states, which he's prepared to implement.

"We are not going to provide anyone with a corridor through the territory of Armenia," Pashinyan told lawmakers. "We are ready for a peaceful resolution and have always been ready."


Why are Armenia, Azerbaijan fighting again, and why does it matter?

At least 99 Armenian and Azerbaijan soldiers were killed on Tuesday in the deadliest fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia since a 2020 war. 

What are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting over? 

Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet countries in the south Caucasus, have been fighting for decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but which until 2020 was populated and fully controlled by ethnic Armenians. 

In a six-week war that year, Azerbaijan won significant territorial gains in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The fighting was ended by a Russian-brokered ceasefire, but skirmishes have erupted periodically since then despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers. 

In the latest flare-up, Yerevan said several Armenian towns were attacked overnight. 
Azerbaijan said it was responding to Armenian provocations. 

Why has fighting broken out now? 

An ambulance seen on a street near a military hospital, where servicemen wounded in night border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan receive treatment, in Yerevan on Sept 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The timing is significant because Russia has in the past been the most influential mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Although the Kremlin said on Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin was making every effort to curb bloodshed in the south Caucasus, the war in Ukraine has undermined Moscow’s status as a peace guarantor in the region. 

That may have emboldened Azerbaijan to pursue more claims. 

Azerbaijan and Armenia categorically disagree on what a comprehensive peace agreement should look like. 

While Baku wants to dissolve Nagorno-Karabakh as a political entity and bar Yerevan from playing a role there, Armenian authorities have pledged to ensure the rights of local Armenians. 

What are the risks? 

A full-fledged conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan risks dragging in the big regional powers, Russia and Turkey, and destabilising the south Caucasus, an important corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas, at a time when the Ukraine war is already disrupting energy supplies. 

Moscow has a defence alliance with Armenia and operates a military base there, while Ankara backs its ethnic Turkic kin in Azerbaijan both politically and militarily.

A war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could create a need for more peacekeepers, at a time when Moscow could ill-afford to provide them. 

REUTERS

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