Deadly Fighting Over Disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Enters Second Day

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on 28 September 2020. The original can be found here.

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh enters a second day amid international calls for restraint.

Both sides have accused each other of using heavy artillery amid reports of dozens of deaths, including civilians, and hundreds of people being injured.

The long-simmering conflict in the volatile South Caucasus erupted into the deadliest bouts of fighting in four years on September 27, threatening to draw in regional powers Russia and Turkey.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared a partial military mobilization on September 28 as Baku said a total of six Azerbaijani civilians, including five members of one family, had been killed and 19 injured since the fighting began.

Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian separatist enclave inside Azerbaijan, said on September 28 that two civilians and a total of 32 of its fighters were killed in clashes with Azerbaijani forces a day earlier.

They said more than 100 people had been wounded since Azerbaijan launched what it described as an air and artillery attack.

Armenia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that “intensive fighting continued overnight.”

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said in a September 28 statement that “Armenian armed forces have been shelling the town of Tartar,” which is adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Both sides fielded helicopters, drones, tanks, and artillery during the first day of fighting.

Nagorno-Karabakh has long experienced periodic border skirmishes along the so-called Line of Contact that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces on the front line of Europe’s longest-running conflict.

In July, a days-long flare-up that included drone attacks and heavy artillery fire killed at least 17 people, mostly soldiers on both sides but including at least one civilian.

The latest violence appeared to be more than a flare-up, with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials describing it as war amid mutual recriminations about which side started the offensive.

“We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian warned, accusing Azerbaijan of carrying out preplanned aggression.

On September 27, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh declared martial law and a total mobilization in response to what they said was Azerbaijani attacks on the enclave, including in the regional capital of Stepanakert.

Azerbaijan, which introduced martial law and a curfew, said it had launched a military operation in response to shelling along the Line of Contact. It also said its forces had seized control of up to seven villages.

Nagorno-Karabakh initially denied that but the region’s de facto leader, Arayik Harutiunian, later acknowledged losing “positions” near Talish and in the south. He vowed to take back the territory.

The Armenian side claimed it had inflicted heavy casualties on Azerbaijan, including destroying dozens of tanks as well as downing helicopters and drones. Azerbaijan denied the claims.

As in previous rounds of violence, both sides appear to be exaggerating the military casualties inflicted on their opponent and engaging in information warfare.

The escalation of violence drew swift responses from European countries, Russia, the United Nations, the United States, and others calling for both sides to cease hostilities immediately and enter dialogue.

Regional power Turkey, meanwhile, said it would support Azerbaijan, its traditional ally.

“By adding to its attacks against Azerbaijan, Armenia has shown once again it is the greatest threat to peace and tranquility in the region,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on September 27.

Armenia’s Pashinian called on global powers to prevent Turkey from interfering in the conflict amid allegations from Yerevan that the Turkish military was deepening its involvement.

In August, Turkey and Azerbaijan completed two weeks of joint air and land military exercises, including in the Azerbaijani enclave of Naxcivan. Some observers have questioned whether Turkey left behind military equipment or even a contingent of troops.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported on September 27 that Turkish-backed Syrian rebels could be sent to support Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh leader Harutiunian accused Turkey on September 27 of deploying mercenaries and warplanes to the fight, claiming, “the war has already” gone “beyond the limits of a Karabakh-Azerbaijan conflict.”

Hikmat Haciyev, an aide to Aliyev, denied that Turkey had sent fighters from Syria to Azerbaijan, calling it “complete nonsense.”

The potential for robust Turkish involvement in the conflict is being watched closely by Russia, which is already on opposing sides with the NATO member in conflicts in Libya and Syria.

Russia sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, but has a military base in Armenia and favors that strategic partnership.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict emerged during the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the region and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan were seized by Armenian-backed separatists who declared independence amid a 1988-1994 conflict that killed at least 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Since a fragile, Russian-brokered truce in 1994, the region has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Azerbaijan says include troops supplied by Armenia. The region’s claim to independence has not been recognized by any country.