At least 24 people have died in clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as the latest violence in the decades-long territorial dispute sparked international calls to halt the fighting.
Fighting that broke out on the weekend over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued on Monday morning, according to Reuters, with the deployment of heavy artillery on both sides.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory but broke away in 1991 and is run by ethnic Armenians.
The Armenian defence ministry reported fighting throughout Sunday night, while Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Armenian forces were shelling the town of Terter.
The worst skirmishes since 2016 have raised the spectre of a fresh war between the ex-Soviet rivals, locked since the early 1990s in a stalemate over the Armenia-backed breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Seventeen Armenian separatist fighters were killed and more than 100 wounded in the fighting, the Karabakh president, Arayik Harutyunyan said on Sunday, conceding that his forces had “lost positions”. Both sides also reported civilian casualties.
Karabakh separatists said one Armenian woman and a child were killed, while Baku said that an Azerbaijani family of five died in shelling launched by Armenian separatists.
Azerbaijan claimed it captured a strategic mountain in Karabakh that helps control transport links between Yerevan and the enclave that is landlocked inside Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan in turn said Karabakh rebel forces killed “some 200 Azerbaijani troops and destroyed 30 enemy artillery units and 20 drones”.
Fighting between Muslim Azerbaijan and majority-Christian Armenia threatened to embroil regional players Russia and Turkey, with the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, calling on global powers to prevent Ankara’s involvement.
“We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus,” Pashinyan said.
France, Germany, Italy and the European Union swiftly urged an “immediate ceasefire” while Pope Francis prayed for peace.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, expressed his “deep concern” and “strongly called for an immediate end to hostilities”.
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said he was “extremely concerned” and urged the sides to stop fighting and return to talks.
The US State Department said it had contacted the two countries and called on them to “use the existing direct communication links between them to avoid further escalation”.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, discussed the military flareup with Pashinyan and called for “an end to hostilities”.
But Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey blamed Yerevan for the flare-up and promised Baku its “full support”.
“The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” wrote the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Karabakh’s President Harutyunyan said Turkey was providing mercenaries and warplanes to the fight, suggesting, “the war has already … [gone] beyond the limits of a Karabakh-Azerbaijan conflict”.
Azerbaijan accused Armenian forces of violating a ceasefire, saying it had launched a counter-offensive to “ensure the safety of the population” using tanks, artillery missiles, combat aviation and drones.
In a televised address to the nation earlier on Sunday, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan vowed victory over Armenian forces.
“Our cause is just and we will win,” he said, echoing a famous quote from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin at the outbreak of the second world war in Russia.
“Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”
Both Armenia and Karabakh declared martial law and military mobilisation. Azerbaijan imposed military rule and a curfew in large cities.
Armenia said that Azerbaijan attacked civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh including the main city, Stepanakert.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said there were reports of dead and wounded. “Extensive damage has been inflicted on many homes and civilian infrastructure,” it said.
Ethnic Armenian separatists seized the Nagorny Karabakh region from Baku in a 1990s war that claimed 30,000 lives.
Talks to resolve one of the worst conflicts to emerge from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union have been largely stalled since a 1994 ceasefire agreement.
France, Russia and the United States have mediated peace efforts as the “Minsk group” but the last big push for a peace deal collapsed in 2010.