Azerbaijan, Armenia reject talks as Karabakh conflict zone expands

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BAKU / YREVAN (Reuters) – Armenia and Azerbaijan on Tuesday accused each other of shooting directly into each other’s territory and rejected pressures to hold peace talks as their conflict over the enclave Nagorno-Karabakh threatened to degenerate into all-out war.

Both reported firing across their shared border, well west of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh during which heavy fighting broke out between Azeri and Armenian forces on Sunday.

The incidents signaled a further escalation of the conflict despite urgent calls from Russia, the United States and others to end it.

The conflict has rekindled concerns about stability in the South Caucasus region, a corridor for pipelines transporting oil and gas to global markets.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, speaking to Russian state television, categorically ruled out any possibility of talks. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told the same channel that they could not take place while the fighting continued.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a separatist region inside Azerbaijan but ruled by ethnic Armenians and supported by Armenia. It broke away from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s, but is not recognized by any country as an independent republic.

Dozens of people have reportedly been killed and hundreds injured since clashes between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces erupted on Sunday, threatening to attract neighbors, including Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.

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After a closed-door discussion on Tuesday, the 15-member UN Security Council “expressed concern” over the clashes, condemned the use of force and supported the appeal by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. UN Antonio Guterres immediately stopped fighting.

Further fueling tensions between the two former Soviet republics, Armenia said a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down one of its fighter jets over Armenian airspace, killing the pilot.

He provided no evidence of the incident. Turkey called this claim “absolutely false” and Azerbaijan also denied it.

“The international community should decisively condemn Azerbaijan’s aggression and Turkey’s actions and demand that Turkey exit this region,” Pashinyan told Russian state television.

“Turkey’s military presence in this region … will lead to a further escalation and extension of the scale of the conflict.”

Azeri leader Aliyev accused Armenia of fabricating the plane incident. “Turkey is not a party to the conflict, is not participating in it in any way and this is not necessary,” he declared.

Aliyev said Azerbaijan was calling in tens of thousands of reservists as part of a partial mobilization announced on Monday.

“We are able to punish the aggressor ourselves so that he doesn’t even dare to look in our direction,” he said.

CALL OF PUTIN

Any descent into all-out war could threaten to drag not only Turkey, but Russia. Moscow has a defense alliance with Armenia, but also maintains close relations with Azerbaijan.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Pashinyan for the second time since the crisis began and said all sides should take steps towards de-escalation. He did not make any contact between Putin and Aliyev public.

The Kremlin said Moscow was in constant contact with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Any discussion of providing military support to opposing sides would only fuel the fire, he said.

US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden tweeted: “With the number of victims rising rapidly in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, the Trump administration must immediately call on the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to defuse the situation. He must also demand that others – like Turkey – stay out of this conflict. “

INCREASING CASUALITIES

Pashinyan told the BBC in an interview that Azeri forces shelled villages and towns in Nagorno-Karabakh and inside Armenia itself on Tuesday.

“There are casualties among the military and civilians. Dozens are killed and hundreds are injured, ”he said.

The Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office said 12 Azeri civilians had so far been killed and 35 wounded by Armenian fire. The Azeri side did not reveal any military casualties.

Nagorno-Karabakh reported the loss of at least 84 soldiers.

“What can I say? It’s a war. We hear air raids several times a day and we are hiding in bomb shelters, ”Albert Voskanyan, a resident of the enclave’s capital, Stepanakert, told Reuters.

Armenian officials said earlier that a civilian was killed in an Azeri attack on the Armenian town of Vardenis, more than 20 km (12 miles) from Nagorno-Karabakh. They said a bus caught fire in the city after being struck by an Azeri drone.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said that since Vardenis, the Armenian army bombed the Dashkesan region in Azerbaijan. Armenia has denied this information.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Riham Alkousaa in Berlin, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Mark Trevelyan and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mark Heinrich and David Gregorio

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