Heavy fighting broke out on the Azerbaijani side of the disputed Armenian-held Nagorno-Karabakh region on April 2, killing at least 30 soldiers and a 12-year-old boy, and drawing calls from global leaders for calm and an immediate ceasefire before the violence spreads.
It is not clear yet if the clashes were a flaring up of existing tensions that bne IntelliNews has covered, or the start of an open conflict between the two countries, which fought a bitter war that claimed the lives of 30,000 people before ending in 1994 with a ceasefire but no permanent settlement.
The fighting reportedly started during the night of April 1 and escalated the next day. The calls for de-escalation by foreign governments inclusing Russia and the US have gone unheeded, with fighting resuming in the morning of April 3 in northern, central and southern Karabakh, according to Richard Giragosian, director at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre think-tank.
Heavy artillery barrages began on the morning of April 2, with Azerbaijan moving tanks into the region. There were reports of Azerbaijani snipers being deployed in the area, killing at least one civilian, a 12-year old boy, according to Armenian press reports.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians, has run its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia since 1994. The international community has clearly acknowledged the territory as belonging to Azerbaijan, but Baku has not controlled the ethnic Armenian territory since the signing of a 1994 ceasefire. Baku and Yerevan remain bitter enemies, but continue to negotiate under the auspices of a group within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by Russia, France and the US.
Tensions have been building for at least 18 months, and clashes along the border between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, also called the line of contact, have been an almost daily occurrence, with bne IntelliNews reporting that a serious escalation has been on the cards. However, this clash appears to be a lot more serious than previous incidents, with both sides acknowledging that this is the biggest escalation in 22 years.
Baku and Yerevan have blamed each other for the latest escalation in hostilities. According to a statement by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry, 100 Armenian soldiers were killed on April 2 and six Armenian tanks, 15 gun mounts and “reinforced engineering structures” on “several strategic heights and settlements” in northeastern Nagorno-Karabakh had been destroyed after Armenians killed several civilians in the Terter-Aghdam and Khojavand-Fuzuli municipalities in Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani Mi-24 helicopter had reportedly been shot down and one tank damaged by a mine. "Six Armenian tanks were destroyed [and] more than 100 Armenian servicemen were killed and injured," it said in a statement, adding that 12 Azebaijani servicemen had also been killed.
Armenia's government refuted the number of casualties, with President Serzh Sargsyan claiming that only 18 Armenian soldiers had been killed and 35 wounded at an emergency security council meeting on April 2. Yerevan also claims that its forces had destroyed one Azerbaijani helicopter, two drones and three tanks. Pictures from the Azerbaijani side show civilians leaving the conflict zone, some of them on foot.
Meanwhile, the Nagorno-Karabakh defence ministry claimed that 200 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed on April 2, some 30 of them north of the Martakert municipality. Authorities in the breakaway republic have accused Azerbaijan of targeting civilians on its territory.
By midday on April 2, the fighting had reportedly spread beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist forces and Azerbaijan’s military to include Armenia’s army.
“The enemy, using tanks, artillery and aviation made attempts to get deep into the defense lines of the Nagorno-Karabakh Army of Defense and capture tactical positions,” Armenia’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement, reported the New York Times.
Video footage from Russia Today and other Russian media sources clearly show Azerbaijan moving armoured personnel carriers (APCs), tanks and other heavy ordinances up to the front line.
"This is more than the customary resumption of low-level violence that is often observed in the spring, when the snows melt in the highlands of Karabakh and soldiers begin shooting at one another," Caucasus scholar Thomas de Waal wrote in an analysis on April 2. "This is something much more serious. Big violations of the Karabakh ceasefire tend not to be accidents, but to have a political cause. There are strong vertical chains of command from the officers on the ground to the presidents in Baku and Yerevan. The Azerbaijani side has more reason to break the ceasefire. As the losing side in the conflict of the 1990s, when it lost almost one seventh of its de jure territory to the Armenians, Baku knows that one of its few tools of pressure on the Armenians is to violate the ceasefire and remind them that the status quo can be shaken."
International calls for de-escalation
Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the warring sides to immediately observe the 1994 ceasefire and "to exercise restraint so as to avert new human casualties", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu have talked over the phone with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. Lavrov urged them to “deal with the situation to stop the violence”, while Shoigu called for “immediate measures to stabilise the situation in the conflict zone”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Armenia and Azerbaijan "to immediately stop fighting and to fully respect the ceasefire." Steinmeier added that there is no military solution to the conflict. "The sides must now show the necessary political will to return to the negotiations in the framework of the Minsk Group. The Minsk Group co-chairs enjoy my full support in their task," he said.
During separate meetings with President Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Washington on April 1, US Vice President Joe Biden expressed concern over the escalation in violence, calling for “a comprehensive settlement for the long-term stability, security, and prosperity of the region”. The US State Department issued a statement on April 2 condemning "in the strongest terms" the ceasefire violations and urging the sides to "show restraint, avoid further escalation and strictly adhere to the ceasefire", because the conflict cannot be solved through military means.
The timing of the escalation, right after Aliyev and Sargsyan returned from Washington - where US authorities failed to convince them to hold a bilateral meeting - is curious, de Waal said. Seeing how the US has proven to have little influence over the events, Putin could emerge as a peacemaker closer to home, though one with limited leverage because Russia does not control the situation on the ground in Nagorno- Karabakh, he added.
The conflict has moved into cyberspace after Armenian hackers reportedly took down the website of the Azerbaijani government, Giragosian said. However, when bne IntelliNews checked, the websites of several ministries of the government, the parliament and of the office of the president appeared to be still functioning.