YREVAN / BAKOU (Reuters) – NATO allies France and Turkey on Wednesday exchanged angry recriminations as international tensions mounted following the fiercest clashes between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces since the mid-1990s.
On the fourth day of the fighting, Azerbaijan and the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh accused each other of bombing each other along the line of contact between them in the unstable and mountainous southern Caucasus.
Dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded in fighting since Sunday have spread far beyond the enclave’s limits, threatening to spill over into all-out war between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The re-eruption of one of the ‘frozen conflicts’ dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 raised concerns about stability in the South Caucasus, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets, and raised fears that Russia would become a regional power and Turkey might be drawn.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan tweeted a video of huge artillery fire explosions, accompanied by dramatic music and captioned “Takeover of an Azerbaijani position”.
Azerbaijan released footage showing its forces firing rocket salutes at enemy locations, as well as gray smoke rising from inside Nagorno-Karabakh as it was beaten by Azeri artillery. Photographs taken in the Azeri town of Terter showed people taking refuge in shelters and damaged buildings that residents said had been hit by Armenian shells.
CONCERN ABOUT THE TURKISH ROLE
Some of Turkey’s NATO allies are increasingly alarmed by Ankara’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey, ruled by ethnic Armenians but which is not recognized by any country as an independent republic.
Echoing President Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Turkey would “do whatever is necessary” when asked whether Ankara would offer military support if Azerbaijan so requested.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev then thanked Turkey for its support, but said his country did not need military assistance. The fighting would cease if the Armenian forces “immediately left our lands,” he said.
Cavusoglu also said that French solidarity with Armenia amounts to supporting the Armenian occupation in Azerbaijan.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is home to many people of Armenian descent, hit back during a visit to Latvia. He said that France was extremely concerned about Turkey’s “warlike messages” “which essentially eliminate Azerbaijan’s inhibition in reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh”.
“And that we will not accept,” he said.
MOSCOW PROPOSES FOR HOSTING DISCUSSIONS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was ready to welcome the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan for talks, his ministry said.
He had separate phone conversations with the two foreign ministers, and the ministry said it had called for a ceasefire and an end to “provocative war rhetoric.”
Lavrov said Russia would continue to work both independently and with other representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group to mediate the conflict.
France has said it wants the Minsk group – led by Moscow, Paris and Washington – to tackle the conflict. European Union leaders will also discuss it at a summit later this week, a German government source said.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave, split from Azerbaijan in the 1990s in a war that killed around 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
In Wednesday’s clashes, Armenian media said three civilians were killed and several injured in shelling in the town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.
One person was killed and three wounded by Armenian fire in the town of Horadiz in southern Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani prosecutor’s office said, bringing the total number of Azeri civilians killed since the fighting began on Sunday to 15. .
Azerbaijan said ethnic Armenian forces tried to regain lost ground by launching counterattacks towards Madagiz, but Azeri forces repelled the attack.
Armenia said the Azeri army bombed the entire front line overnight and two Azeri drones were shot down over Stepanakert, the administrative center of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was not possible to independently confirm the report.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, said he does not plan to seek Russian help at this stage as part of a post security treaty. -Soviet, but did not rule out doing so.
The Kremlin said the Russian military is following developments closely.
Armenia claims one of its SU-25 fighter jets was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet on Tuesday, but the report has been denied by Turkish and Azeri officials.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Syrian and Libyan fighters from illegal armed groups were being sent to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and urged the countries involved to prevent the use of “foreign terrorists and mercenaries” in the conflict.
Two Syrian rebel sources told Reuters that Turkey is sending rebels from areas of northern Syria it controls to support Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied this.