Armenian-Azeri Conflict Threatens to Spread as Casualties Grow

  • Shelling reported outside disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory
  • Fighting between Azeris, Armenians is the worst in 20 years

Armenians and Azeris reported dozens of soldiers and civilians killed as the worst fighting in two decades threatened to spread beyond the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.

Twenty Armenian servicemen have died, 26 are missing and 72 were wounded in clashes as of 8 p.m. on Monday, while 11 civilians have also been killed, the Defense Ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which is not internationally recognized, said Tuesday in a statement. Sixteen Azeri troops have been killed in two days, the Defense Ministry in Baku said in a statement Tuesday.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan reported shelling across their northern border, outside the Armenian-controlled enclave. Amid the biggest loss of life since a Russian-brokered truce 22 years ago, mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are to meet in Vienna Tuesday to seek ways to halt the violence.

Armenia has warned that the escalating conflict could spiral into a “full-scale war” over Nagorno-Karabakh, threatening to destabilize a region flanked by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The territory in the Caucasus mountains, which broke away from Azerbaijan, is part of an arc of instability along Russia’s border that stretches north and west through Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. Fighting between Armenia, which has a mutual-defense pact with Russia, and Azerbaijan, which has close ties to NATO member Turkey, would bring more turmoil to the region and potentially disrupt a new energy corridor between central Asia and Europe.

Tanks Destroyed

BP Plc said the clashes haven’t affected operations at its oil pipeline that carried 720,000 barrels per day from Baku to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan last year. The pipeline at one point runs fewer than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the conflict zone. Nagorno-Karabakh separatists have threatened in the past to attack the line to deny key petro-dollars to Azerbaijan, whose economy is reeling from a crisis triggered by the slump in crude prices.

Armenian forces lost seven tanks and eight positions as of Monday, the Karabakh defense ministry said. Azeri forces repelled attempts to recapture positions in the southeast and northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh, while a “strategic” Armenian army base was destroyed, according to the Defense Ministry in Baku.

A 16-year-old Azeri girl was killed by Armenian artillery fire in the northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh, the APA news service in Baku reported Tuesday, citing its correspondent in the area.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said Monday his country “will recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh” if the violence increases. “Further escalation of military operations can lead to unpredictable and irreversible consequences, up to a full-scale war,” he said on his website after meeting OSCE ambassadors in Yerevan.

Map of southern Caucasus

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed “efforts to secure an immediate end of the violence” in a phone call on Monday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington. Lavrov is due to visit Baku on Thursday and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will be in Yerevan on the same day.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Monday on Twitter that he told Sargsyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev that a comprehensive settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh is “critical for their stability, security” and prosperity.

“Once begun, any military operations in this conflict zone can easily escalate and get out of control,” Thomas de Waal, a senior associate with Carnegie Europe specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, wrote on the group’s Moscow Center website. “Everyone knows that a new Karabakh war would not just be tragic for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but devastating for the entire South Caucasus region.”

Failed Truce

Each side has blamed the other for the attacks, while a unilateral truce declared by Azerbaijan on Sunday didn’t hold. Tensions have been rising for more than a year along the contact line, where what de Waal estimates is 20,000 soldiers on either side facing each other in World War I-style trenches separated by 300 meters of ground dotted with landmines.

The confrontation dates back to the dying days of the Soviet Union, when a dispute over the territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan flared into a war that killed 30,000 and created a million refugees. Armenians took over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions districts from Azerbaijan in the 1991-1994 conflict.

OSCE mediators from the U.S., Russia and France have failed to negotiate a lasting peace since then. Armenia says the enclave’s Christian Armenians, who declared independence from largely-Muslim Azerbaijan in 1991, have the right to self-determination. Azerbaijan demands respect for its territorial integrity.

What has changed is the economic balance of power as Azerbaijan has attracted more than $50 billion from BP and its partners in recent years. Energy revenues poured into the government’s coffers, allowing Aliyev to turn Baku into a gleaming capital of skyscrapers and high-end boutiques, while also boosting military spending 30-fold in the past decade. Azeri defense spending reached $4.8 billion in 2015, more than Armenia’s entire state budget.

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