This week the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Azeri breakaway region Nagorno Karabakh, controlled by Armenia, escalated as both sides reported violations of the ceasefire agreement. According to Armenian sources 3 civilians were killed by howitzer shells fired at Armenian villages, while 4 soldiers were killed and 16 wounded at a military base“several kilometers” from the line of contact. Azerbaijani officials said the cause of the escalation of violence is Armenia’s “continuing policy of occupation and aggression towards Azerbaijan” and claims that Armenia has been firing mortars at Azerbaijani territory, killing 1 soldier and wounding 3. International mediators have condemned the use of artillery along the border, as they host talks with the countries’ foreign ministers in New York.
This week’s escalation of violence comes after a long time of periodical exchanges of sniper fire between the two sides since the Russian-backed ceasefire in 1994, but recently both sides have claimed the other side has resorted to mortar fire. Armenia claims Azerbaijani troops on the night of 25 September used TR-107 systems, mortars, grenade launchers and automatic weapons. It also claims that the 4 soldiers from the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army were killed in a unprovoked attack, while Azerbaijan claims it was retaliatory fire. On 26 September Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian vowed “punitive actions” and said he would “force Azerbaijan’s government to be accountable to its people for more suffering inflicted on them”. From the 26th onwards Armenia has said it will “use adequate means of artillery and rocket fire, constantly targeting the sites of Azerbaijani troop deployments and movements, military hardware and personnel”, according to the defense ministry. Armenian officials stressed that they regretted having to make this decision, but that they had “no choice but to ensure that the adversary does not think that it has gotten away with its impudent behavior.” Azerbaijan claims it has instructed its soldiers not to fire on civilians and blamed Armenia for deploying military facilities in residential areas, placing the blame for civilian casualties on Armenia.
Mediators from the USA, Russia and France, who co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with the negotiations, have urged Azerbaijan to discuss their long-standing proposal for an international mechanism that will investigate ceasefire violations in the conflict zone. According to the Minsk Group without this mechanism “the sides will continue to blame each other for initiating deadly attacks on the Line of Contact and Armenia-Azerbaijan border.” Armenia has already agreed to discuss the details of this mechanism, but Azerbaijan has refused to do so. On the 26th the OSCE Minsk Group again urged Azerbaijan to accept the mechanism, as talks between foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Edward Nalbandian and Elmar Mammadyarov, took place in New York. The Minsk Group furthermore said that “an escalation of violence is not in the interest of Azerbaijanis or Armenians, or a negotiated settlement”. The foreign ministers discussed with the Minsk Group the “immediate need to reduce tensions”, but according to an Armenian Foreign Ministry statement Minister Nalbandian “raged” at his Azeri counterpart and “accused Azerbaijan of deliberately escalating the situation”. Meanwhile Mammadyarov accused Armenia of obstructing peace talks and taking “various provocative steps”.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been caught in a violent conflict for over 20 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the following war, Armenia backs the breakaway Nagorno Karabakh region, where mostly ethnic Armenians live. The Armenian side also took control of 7 surrounding Azerbaijani provinces in order to establish a permanent corridor between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh and create a buffer zone. More than 30.000 people died in the war and in both countries a large number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) still exists. Since 1994 the OSCE Minsk group has brokered peace talks, but so far these have proven unsuccessful and little progress is made. During rounds of Minsk Group meetings in New York the past days Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers “agreed to continue preparations with the Co-chairs” for a meeting between the countries’ presidents, which is “expected to be held before the end of the year”.