- Baku says operation targeting ‘terrorists’ in Karabakh
- Says aim is to restore ‘constitutional order’
- Shelling audible from Karabakh capital – social media
- Armenia condemns ‘full-scale aggression’
- Movement raises specter of war in volatile South Caucasus
BAKU, Sept 19 (Reuters) – Azerbaijan launched military action in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a move that could herald a new war in the volatile region but which Baku said was necessary to restore constitutional order and drive out Armenian military formations.
Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it is run by breakaway ethnic Armenian authorities, who say the area is their ancestral homeland. It has been the center of two wars – the most recent in 2020 – since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It was not clear whether Baku’s actions would trigger a full-scale conflict involving neighboring Armenia or be a more limited military operation. But there were already signs of political fallout in Yerevan, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan speaking out against calls for a coup against him.
The fighting could change the geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus region, which is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines and where Russia – distracted by its own war in Ukraine – is seeking to maintain its influence in the face of greater interest from Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan .
Loud and repeated shelling could be heard from social media footage recorded in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, called Khankendi by Azerbaijan, on Tuesday.
The separatist human rights ombudsman in Karabakh, Gegham Stepanyan, said two civilians had been killed and 11 people wounded as a result of attacks by Azerbaijan’s military. Reuters could not immediately confirm his claim.
In a statement announcing its operation, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense spoke of its intention to “disarm and ensure the withdrawal of formations of the Armed Forces of Armenia from our territories, (and) neutralize their military infrastructure”.
It said it only targeted legitimate military targets using “high-precision weapons” and not civilians as part of what it called an effort to “restore constitutional order in the Republic of Azerbaijan”.
Civilians were free to leave through humanitarian corridors, it added, including one to Armenia, whose prime minister, Pashinyan, said the offer looked like another attempt by Baku to get ethnic Armenians to leave Karabakh as part of a campaign by what he called “ethnic cleansing”, a charge Baku denies.
Ethnic Armenian forces in Karabakh said Azerbaijani forces were trying to break through their defenses after heavy shelling, but were holding the line for now.
Armenia, which had been holding peace talks with Azerbaijan, including on issues of Karabakh’s future, condemned what it called Baku’s “full-scale aggression” against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and accused Azerbaijan of shelling towns and villages.
“Driven by a sense of impunity, Azerbaijan has openly taken responsibility for the aggression,” Armenia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Reuters could not immediately verify battleground claims by either side.
APPEAL FOR HELP
Armenia, which says its armed forces are not in Karabakh and the situation on its own border with Azerbaijan is stable, called on members of the UN Security Council to help and Russian peacekeepers on the ground to intervene.
Russia, which brokered a fragile ceasefire after the 2020 war that saw Azerbaijan recapture swathes of land in and around Karabakh it had lost in a previous conflict in the 1990s, called on all sides to end the fighting.
Russia is in contact with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and has called for talks to resolve the Karabakh conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday, adding that Moscow considered ensuring civilian security the most important issue.
Armenia has accused Moscow of being too distracted by its own war in Ukraine to protect its own security and has accused Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh of failing to do their job.
Speaking inside Karabakh with artillery booming in the background, Ruben Vardanyan, a banker who was a top official in Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration until February, appealed to Armenia to recognize Karabakh’s self-declared independence from Azerbaijan.
He also called on the international community to impose sanctions on Baku.
“A really serious situation has unfolded here,” Vardanyan said on Telegram. “Azerbaijan has launched a full-scale military operation against 120,000 residents, 30,000 of whom are children, pregnant women and old people,” he said.
The Armenian government held a security council meeting to discuss the situation as people gathered in the government district of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to demand that the authorities intervene.
Baku announced its operation after complaining that six of its citizens had been killed by landmines in two separate incidents, which it blamed on “illegal Armenian armed groups”. Armenia said the allegations were false.
The escalation came a day after much-needed food and medicine were delivered to Karabakh by two routes simultaneously, a move that appeared to help defuse rising tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Until the past few days, Baku had imposed extensive restrictions on the Lachin Corridor – the only road linking Armenia with Karabakh – and had blocked aid on the grounds that the route was allegedly used for arms smuggling.
Yerevan had said Baku’s actions had caused a humanitarian disaster, something Azerbaijan denied, and were illegal.
Armenia’s foreign ministry had said on Monday that Azerbaijan’s diplomatic stance appeared to be preparing the ground for some form of military action.
Reporting by Reuters Writing by Andrew Osborn Editing by
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