Ankara, Turkey – Heavy fighting has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, with civilian deaths reported by both sides.
Accusing Azerbaijan of air and artillery attacks, Armenia reported downing helicopters and destroying tanks, and declared martial law.
Azerbaijan said it had begun a counter-offensive in response to shelling.
The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians.
They broke away in the dying years of the Soviet Union. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the communist state, which sought to suppress ethnic and religious differences.
Amid the clashes, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he was confident of regaining control over the breakaway region. Martial law has also been declared in some regions of Azerbaijan.
The conflict in the Caucasus Mountains has remained unresolved for more than three decades, with periodic bouts of fighting. Border clashes in July killed at least 16 people, prompting the largest demonstration for years in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, where there were calls for the region’s recapture.
On Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged support for Azerbaijan during the new crisis while Russia, traditionally seen as an ally of Armenia, called for an immediate ceasefire and talks to stabilize the situation.
How did the fighting spread?
Armenia’s defense ministry said an attack on civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the regional capital Stepanakert, began at 08:10 local time (04:10 GMT) on Sunday.
A woman and child were killed, officials said.
Armenia said it had shot down two helicopters and three drones, as well as destroying three tanks.
“Our response will be proportionate, and the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan bears full responsibility for the situation,” the defense ministry said.
Armenia’s government declared martial law and total military mobilization, shortly after a similar announcement by the authorities inside the separatist region.
“Get ready to defend our sacred homeland,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said after accusing Azerbaijan of “pre-planned aggression”.
Warning that the region was on the brink of a “large-scale war”, and accusing Turkey of “aggressive behavior”, he urged the international community to unite to prevent any further destabilization.
Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said civilians had been killed or wounded by Armenian shelling of several of its villages.
It confirmed the loss of one helicopter but said the crew had survived, and reported that 12 Armenian air defense systems had been destroyed. It denied other losses reported by Armenia.
President Aliyev said he had ordered a large-scale counter-offensive operation in response to Armenian army attacks.
“As a result of the counter-offensive operation, a number of Azerbaijani residential areas that were under occupation have been liberated,” he said in remarks broadcast on television.
“I am confident that our successful counter-offensive operation will put an end to the occupation, to the injustice, to the 30-year-long occupation.”
Armenia’s defense ministry denied any villages had been lost to Azerbaijan
President Erdogan called Armenia “the biggest threat to peace and tranquillity in the region”.
Turkey has close ties to Azerbaijan and does not have relations with Armenia because of a dispute over the mass killing of Armenians during the Ottoman era. Armenia says this was a genocide but Turkey staunchly rejects this.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has long been trying to mediate a settlement of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, with diplomats from France, Russia and the US – making up the OSCE Minsk Group – trying to build on a 1994 ceasefire.
Nagorno-Karabakh dispute: Armenia, Azerbaijan standoff explained
Decades-old tensions erupt again into heavy clashes, prompting fears of an all-out conflict.
The contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, a mountainous and heavily-forested patch of land, is at the heart of a decades-long armed standoff between neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognised as part of Azerbaijan. But the ethnic Armenians who make up the vast majority of the population reject Azerbaijani rule. They have been running their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s forces were pushed out in a war in the 1990s.
On Sunday, heavy clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh prompted fears that the dispute could spiral once again into all-out war.
The status of the region has been disputed at least since 1918, when Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent from the Russian empire.
In the early 1920s, Soviet rule was imposed in the south Caucasus and the predominantly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous region within the then-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, with most decisions being made in Moscow.
But decades later, as the Soviet Union started to crumble, it became apparent that Nagorno-Karabakh would come under the direct rule of the government in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ethnic Armenians did not accept that.
In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature voted to join the Armenian republic, a demand strongly opposed by both the Azerbaijani Soviet government and Moscow.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Yerevan-backed Armenian separatists seized the territory, home to a significant Azerbaijani minority, as well as seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts.
At least 30,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes in the fighting.
Despite an internationally-brokered ceasefire agreed in 1994, peace negotiations have stalled and clashes erupt frequently around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border.
In April 2016, dozens of people from both sides were killed in the most serious fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in years.
The latest clashes on Sunday also left both sides with casualties, including civilians.
They follow a flare-up along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border in July, which killed at least 17 soldiers from both sides.
The long-running conflict has concerned the international community in part because of its threat to stability in a region that serves as a corridor for pipelines taking oil and gas to world markets.