YEREVAN/BAKU (Dispatches) — Death and injury tolls rose Tuesday as fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces raged for a third week over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh separatists said 16 servicemen were killed, bringing the total number of dead among their fighters to 532 since Sept. 27, when the fighting flared up in the decades-old conflict.
Azerbaijan hasn’t disclosed its military losses, and the overall toll is likely to be much higher with both sides regularly claiming to have inflicted significant military casualties.
Azerbaijani authorities said 42 civilians have been killed on their side since the start of the fighting.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that overnight attacks on a residential area in its second largest city of Ganja killed at least nine people and wounded more than 30, including children. The attack came less than 24 hours after a Russian-brokered ceasefire was supposed to take effect.
The deadly clashes marked the biggest escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which belongs to Azerbaijan but has been under control of ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Armenia since the end of a war in 1994.
In 1994, the two Caucasian nations agreed on a ceasefire in the hope that France, Russia and the U.S. — known as the Minsk Group — would work out a lasting solution to the conflict.
But for decades, the group has failed to stop sporadic outbreaks of fighting and implement four UN resolutions which demand that military forces leave the occupied territories and hand them over to Azerbaijan.
Foreign ministers from Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire deal that took effect Saturday. The plan was brokered by Russia, which has a security pact with Armenia, although Moscow also has cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan and seeks to mediate in the conflict.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of continued attacks in violation of the agreement.
On Tuesday, Azerbaijani officials said Armenian forces shelled some of its regions, and Nagorno-Karabakh officials said Azerbaijan launched "large-scale military operations” along the front line.
Defense ministry spokesman Vagif Dargiahly
said Armenia was shelling the Azeri territories of Goranboy and Aghdam, as well as Terter. Azeri forces were not violating the truce, he added.
Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan denied the accusation. She said Azeri forces had resumed military operations after an overnight lull, "supported by active artillery fire in the southern, northern, northeastern and eastern directions”.
The fighting which erupted on Sept. 27 is the worst since a 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh that killed about 30,000.
It is being closely watched abroad, not only due to its proximity to Azeri energy pipelines to Europe but also because of fears that Russia and Turkey could be drawn in.
The Minsk Group called on the Armenian and Azeri leaders to immediately implement the ceasefire to prevent "catastrophic consequences for the region”.
The 11-member group includes both Russia and Turkey, but the latter is not involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested holding talks that would include Turkey.
Ceasefire demands were "reasonable”, according to Cavusoglu, but he said the international community should ask Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory. "Sadly no such call is being made,” he told reporters.
Influential Turkish politician Devlet Bahceli, whose party supports President Erdogan’s AKP in parliament, took a more strident note, telling Azerbaijan to secure Nagorno-Karabakh by "hitting Armenia over the head over and over again”.
Martin Schuepp, Eurasia regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said his organization was in "continuous discussions” to facilitate the handover of detainees or bodies of those killed.
But the security situation meant "it has not been possible for us to access all locations that might have been affected,” Schuepp said.
The conflict is also worsening the spread of COVID-19, World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a United Nations briefing in Geneva.
Armenia’s new cases had doubled over the past 14 days as of Monday, while new infections were up approximately 80% over the past week in Azerbaijan, Jasarevic said. He warned of "direct disruption to health care and a further burden on health systems that are already stretched during the COVID pandemic.”
With tens of thousands of people potentially needing help in coming months, the ICRC is appealing for another 9.2 million Swiss francs ($10.10 million) to fund its humanitarian efforts in the region, Schuepp said.