16 killed as fighting erupts between Armenia, Azerbaijan in disputed area
Armenia declares martial law and military mobilization over Nagorno-Karabakh
Fighting erupted anew Sunday between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing 16 people and wounding more than 100, a top territorial official said, while Azerbaijan's president said his military has suffered losses.
Armenia also claimed that two Azerbaijani helicopters were shot down and three Azerbaijani tanks were hit by artillery, but Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry rejected that claim.
Heavy fighting broke out in the morning in the region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since 1994 at the end of a separatist war. It was not immediately clear what sparked the fighting, the heaviest since clashes in July killed 16 people from both sides.
Nagorno-Karabakh authorities reported that shelling hit the region's capital of Stepanakert and the towns of Martakert and Martuni. Armenian Defence Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisyan also said Azerbaijani shelling hit within Armenian territory near the town of Vardenis.
Artur Sarkisian, deputy head of the Nagorno-Karabakh army, said 16 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. It wasn't immediately clear if the figure included both soldiers and civilians. Earlier, the Armenian human rights ombudsman said a woman and child had been killed in the shelling.
Claims of 2 helicopters shot down
Another Armenian Defence Ministry spokesperson, Shushan Stepanyan, said "the Armenian side" shot down two helicopters and hit three tanks.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ordered martial law be imposed in some regions of the country and called for a curfew in major cities.
In a televised address to the nation, Aliyev said that "there are losses among the Azerbaijani forces and the civilian population as a result of the Armenian bombardment," but he didn't give further details. He also claimed that "many units of the enemy's military equipment have been destroyed."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "is conducting intensive contacts in order to induce the parties to ceasefire and start negotiations to stabilize the situation," ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, called on the sides to stop fighting. The long-unsuccessful negotiations for resolving the territory's status has been conducted under OSCE auspices.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Sunday said the country could re-examine whether to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as independent. Such a move would likely obstruct further negotiations.
Pashinian also said his country has declared martial law and total military mobilization following the clashes.
Turkey condemns 'provocation'
News of the fighting was harshly received in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.
Turkey's ruling party spokesperson Omer Celik tweeted: "We vehemently condemn Armenia's attack on Azerbaijan. Armenia has once again committed a provocation, ignoring law." He promised Turkey would stand by Azerbaijan and said, "Armenia is playing with fire and endangering regional peace."
Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin also condemned Armenia.
"Armenia has violated the ceasefire by attacking civilian settlements ... the international community must immediately say stop to this dangerous provocation," Kalin tweeted.
Mostly mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh — a region of some 4,400 square kilometres, or about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware — lies 50 kilometres from the Armenian border. Local soldiers backed by Armenia also occupy some Azerbaijani territory outside the region.
"France is extremely concerned by the confrontation," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Agnes bon der Muhll said in a statement. Along with the United States and Russia, France is co-president of the Minsk group, which mediates between both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said Sunday that he was praying for peace between the two countries, urging them to "accomplish concrete deeds of goodwill and fraternity" to reach a peaceful solution through dialogue.
Iran called on Sunday for an immediate end to the conflict, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson was quoted as saying by state TV, announcing Tehran's readiness to help in establishing a ceasefire.
"Iran is closely monitoring the conflict with concern and calls for an immediate end to the conflict and the start of talks between the two countries," Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
"Tehran is ready to use all its capacities to help talks to start between the two sides."
With files from Reuters