YREVAN / BAKU (Reuters) – Armenia said on Saturday it would use “all means necessary” to protect ethnic Armenians from attacks by Azerbaijan, which said its forces captured a chain of villages during fighting in the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ignoring a French attempt at mediation, the opposing parties fought with rockets and missiles for a seventh day in the new outbreak of a decades-old conflict that threatens to draw Russia and Turkey.
The death toll has risen to at least 230 in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that broke control in the 1990s.
Each side said they had destroyed hundreds of each other’s tanks. The Azeri side claimed gains and President Ilham Aliyev sent his congratulations to a military commander for taking a village in Karabakh.
“Today the Azerbaijani army hoisted the flag of Azerbaijan in Madagiz. Madagiz is ours, ”Aliyev said on social media. He then announced the capture of seven other villages.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of the Azeri capital Baku to celebrate, waving flags and placards stating “Karabakh was and will be ours.”
It was not possible to independently verify the situation on the ground.
Armenian Defense Ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the situation changes frequently. “In such a major war, such changes are natural. We can take a stand and then leave it in an hour, ”he told reporters.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told his compatriots in a televised speech that the fighting throughout the front was intense.
“At present we already have significant human losses, both military and civilian, large amounts of military equipment are no longer usable, but the adversary has still not been able to solve any of its problems. strategic, ”he said.
Until now, the Armenian armed forces have refrained from going to war alongside those in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Pashinyan described the conflict as a national struggle and compared it to the country’s war against Ottoman Turkey in the early 20th century.
His foreign ministry said that Armenia, as guarantor of the security of Nagorno-Karabakh, would take “all necessary means and measures” to prevent what it called “mass atrocities”. the forces of Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the steps it might involve.
The clashes are the worst since the 1990s, when some 30,000 people were killed. They raised international concerns about stability in the South Caucasus, where pipelines bring Azeri oil and gas to world markets.
PATIENCE LETS OUT
Other than a four-day war in 2016 that killed around 200 people, the Karabakh region has been generally calm over the past quarter-century, with Russia playing a balancing role as an ally of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Today, Azerbaijan, emboldened by Turkish support, says it is at the end of its patience with decades of ineffective diplomacy that have failed to return its lost territory.
As Russia, the United States and France called for an end to hostilities, Turkey said the Armenian “occupiers” must withdraw and rejected “superficial” ceasefire demands.
Regional and military analysts say the Azeris do not have the firepower to completely invade Karabakh, but could be content with territorial gains that will allow them to declare victory and gain influence in future negotiations.
The two sides continued to exchange accusations of foreign involvement, with Pashinyan claiming that Armenia had information that 150 high-ranking Turkish officers were helping to lead Azeri military operations.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have repeatedly denied the involvement of Turkish forces, as well as claims by Armenia, Russia and France that Syrian rebels are fighting on the Azeri side.
Azerbaijan retaliated, saying in a statement on Saturday that ethnic Armenians from Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Georgia, Greece and the United Arab Emirates had been deployed or were in the process of operating as “fighters. foreign terrorists ”on the Armenian side.
Nagorno-Karabakh said 51 more of its troops were killed, bringing its total casualties to 198.
Azerbaijan claims 19 of its civilians were killed, but has not disclosed its military casualties. Eleven civilians were killed by Nagorno-Karabakh and two in Armenia.