YEREVAN/BAKU (Dispatches) -- Fighting escalated sharply on Monday between Azerbaijan and its ethnic Armenian mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and at least 29 people were killed in a second day of heavy clashes.
The two sides pounded each other with rockets and artillery in the fiercest explosion of the decades-old conflict in more than a quarter of a century.
Any move to all-out war could drag in major regional powers Russia and Turkey. Moscow has a defense alliance with Armenia, which provides vital support to the enclave and is its lifeline to the outside world, while Ankara backs its own ethnic Turkic kin in Azerbaijan.
"We haven’t seen anything like this since the ceasefire to the war in the 1990s. The fighting is taking place along all sections of the front line,” said Olesya Vartanyan, senior analyst for the South Caucasus region at Crisis Group.
Rebels in Nagorno-Karabakh said 27 of their fighters had been killed in fighting with Azeri forces on Monday, after saying that 31 of their servicemen had been killed on Sunday and around 200 wounded when Azerbaijan attacked.
The general prosecutor’s office in Azerbaijan said two Azeri civilians had been killed on Monday, after five were killed on Sunday, and 30 had been wounded. There was no official information about any Azeri military casualties.
Vartanyan said the use of rockets and artillery brought a higher risk of civilian casualties that could make the escalation hard to stop by diplomatic means.
"If there are mass casualties, it will be extremely difficult to contain this fighting and we will definitely see a full-fledged war that will have a potential intervention of Turkey or Russia, or both of them.”
Russia called for an immediate ceasefire, and Turkey said it would support Azerbaijan.
Clashes first broke out in the late 1980s between Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian Christians and ethnic Azeri Muslims, as Soviet Communist rule from Moscow was starting to crumble.
All-out war in the early 1990s led to hundreds of thousands of Azeris being driven out of their homes as rebels, with heavy support from Armenia, seized the region.
Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. The key sticking point is Azerbaijan’s demand that Armenia withdraw its military forces from Karabakh and let Azeris return to their homes, while Yerevan is apparently satisfied with the stalemate because it allows the status-quo to continue.
The fresh flare-up is due to the failure of diplomatic negotiations within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, led by France, the U.S. and Russia.
The new fighting has revived concern over stability in the South Caucasus, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan demanded Armenia immediately quit the Azeri lands he said it was occupying and said it was time to end the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.
Armenia’s parliament condemned what it said was a "full-scale military attack” by Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian foreign ministry spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan said Turkish military experts were fighting alongside Azerbaijan, and that Turkey had provided drones and warplanes. Azerbaijan denied the allegations, and there was no immediate reaction from Turkey.
Interfax news agency quoted the press secretary of Azerbaijan’s defense ministry, Anar Eyvazov, as saying the Azeri military had liberated several strategically important heights near the village of Talish in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Eyvazov also said Lernik Vardanyan, commander of the Armenian airborne assault battalion, had been killed near Talish. Armenia said this was disinformation.
Iran said the region cannot take another war, urging both Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle their dispute through negotiations.
"We cannot tolerate the continuation of a military conflict in our borders, and will do our utmost to ensure calm in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeid Khatibzadeh told reporters in Tehran.
He said the Islamic Republic had asked the two sides to end fighting as fast as possible and enter negotiations to find a solution.
Khatibzadeh said Iran is monitoring the situation very closely, is in constant contact with both parties to the conflict, and making all in its power to help calm the situation.