17th Feb 2019

Fighting ends in mini-war on Europe’s fringe

  • Stepanakert is the de facto capital of Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Azerbaijan and Armenia on Tuesday (5 April) agreed to stop firing at each other after a four-day war that highlighted the fragility of Europe’s Caucasus region.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said: “On 5 April at 12:00 [9AM CET], on the basis of a mutual agreement, military actions on the contact line between the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan are halted."

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  • Men in military clothes in Vank, a town in Nagorno-Karabakh (Photo: Timon91)

The Armenian defence ministry made a similar statement to Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency.

Artak Beglaryan, a spokesman for the Armenian-backed government in Nagorno-Karabakh, told the Reuters news agency in Stepanakert, its main town, that: “There is zero fire from both sides.” But he added that “at this moment, there is no written agreement.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region that broke away from Azerbaijan in an ugly ethnic conflict in the early 1990s.

The latest flare-up in fighting began on Friday but there are different accounts of who started it.

Azerbaijan said Armenian forces began firing heavy-calibre weapons across the contact line. But Armenia said Azerbaijan tried to capture territory in a tank assault with air support.

The reported death toll also varied from over 100 on each side to between 15 and 30 on each side.

The facts are hard to verify because there are few international staff on the ground.

The OSCE, a Vienna-based intergovernmental body, is in charge of mediation via its so called Minsk Group - a club of French, Russian and US diplomats. But the group has just six unarmed monitors in the region, who tend to arrive on the scene a few days after each round of fighting ends.

France, Germany, Russia, the US and the EU external action service had all appealed for calm ahead of Tuesday’s truce.

EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini spoke by phone with Armenia and Azerbaijan's foreign ministers, urging "immediate de-escalation of violence."

The OSCE also held a snap meeting in Vienna shortly after the ceasefire accord.

Russia is the leading power in the region. It has a military base in Armenia and a treaty obligation to defend its internationally recognised borders. But it also sells weapons to Azerbaijan, an oil and gas-rich dictatorship.

The recent fighting was the worst since full-scale hostilities ended in 1994.

If the conflict reignites it could also draw in Turkey, which is Azerbaijan’s strategic ally and which hails from the same ethnic and linguistic group.

Amid EU appeals to Baku and Yerevan for restraint, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday: “We pray our Azerbaijani brothers will prevail in these clashes.”

David K. Babayan, another Nagorno-Karabakh spokesman, told press at the time that Baku would not have launched its raid without Ankara’s say-so. “Azerbaijan could not have taken this decision on its own,” he said.

The South Caucasus region is a gateway for oil and gas pipelines to the EU bypassing Russia.

It is also host to a frozen conflict between Russia and Georgia over Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.

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