'Serious' fighting in Europe's oldest war
European and US diplomats have urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to back off from a wider confrontation after the latest flare-up in fighting in Europe’s oldest ongoing war.
The French, Russian, and US envoys to the Minsk Group, which mediates in the conflict, reminded the warring parties of their “commitments to refrain from the use of force.”
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They also urged them, in a statement on Sunday (26 February), to “keep heavy military equipment … in its present positions and to allow recovery of the dead.”
They said there had been “serious” fighting in the early hours of Saturday morning and that “several bodies remain in the no-man's land” that separated the two sides’ trenches.
With no international monitors at the scene, they added: “The sides accuse each other of an incursion attempt.”
The conflict dates back to 1988, when the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh tried to split from the then Soviet republic of Azerbaijan to join Armenia.
Armenia won a subsequent war and held onto the territory, which calls itself the Republic of Artsakh.
Artsakh said Azerbaijan started Saturday’s clash by sending reconnaissance units over the line in the south-east of the front. It said Azerbaijan also deployed tanks, but that no Armenian lives were lost.
Azerbaijan said Armenia started it and that there were losses on both sides. It said it destroyed an Armenian artillery position and shot down a drone.
The fighting coincided with the 25th anniversary of a massacre in the village of Khojaly in 1992 in which Armenian forces killed more than 160 Azerbaijani people, according to Human Rights Watch, a New-York based NGO.
It led to an outpouring of animosity on social media, with Armenian and Azerbaijani Twitter users trading accusations and posting graphic images of violence.
Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, who was born in Artsakh, is likely to discuss the situation with EU leaders in Brussels this week.
He will also discuss plans for a slimmed-down EU association treaty after his country joined Russia’s Eurasian Union instead of pursuing closer, Ukraine-type EU relations.
The weekend’s violence was the second flare-up after a four-day war last April that claimed between 50 and several hundred lives on both sides, according to contradictory reports.
The two sides trade artillery and sniper fire on an almost daily basis, however.
The war could aggravate the EU’s refugee crisis and disrupt oil and gas flows from the Caspian Sea region if it escalated.
It could also drag in Nato member Turkey and Russia on opposite sides.
The EU foreign service did not add to the Minsk Group statement at the time of publication on Monday.
It spoke out last week after the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh held a referendum to alter its constitution, however.
“The EU does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework of such procedures, which cannot prejudice the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh or impact on the negotiation process,” an EU spokesperson told EUobserver on Friday.
“The EU … calls for earliest resumption of negotiations toward sustainable peace,” it added.
This news update is the fourth in a series of stories by EUobserver that examine the issues and look at the lives of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The first part was about a referendum to create a 'Republic of Artsakh' in Nagorno-Karabakh. The second article looked at the origins of the conflict. The third one looked at the situation on the line of contact.