At least 30 soldiers have been killed in fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the frontlines of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, officials of both the countries said.
Both sides blamed the other for the fighting that began overnight.
Azerbaijan said on Saturday that Armenian forces killed 12 of its soldiers and shot down a helicopter.
“Twelve Azeri servicemen were killed in action and a helicopter was shot down by Armenian forces,” Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said in a statement, also claiming that Azeri forces took control of “two strategic heights and a village” in Karabakh.
Azeri troops, meanwhile, killed 18 ethnic-Armenian soldiers, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said.
“From our side 18 soldiers were killed and some 35 others wounded,” Sarkisian said in a televised statement, not specifying if the soldiers belonged to Yerevan-backed separatist forces in Karabakh or Armenia’s armed forces.
The Armenian Defence Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisyan wrote on a Facebook post that Armenian forces in the region shot down an Azeri military helicopter, a claim which Azerbaijan denied.
“Active combat is currently under way,” Hovhannisyan said. “The Armenian Army has launched a counter-attack. There are victims on both sides but the opposing side has sustained huge losses in manpower and equipment. A [Azerbaijani] helicopter has been shot down.” .
Russia urges ‘restraint’
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, urged all sides to cease firing and “show restraint”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of Armenian military and separatists since a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended in 1994. Years of negotiations have brought little progress in resolving the dispute.
Fighting on Saturday marked the worst clashes since 1994, said David Babayan, spokesman for the region’s separatist president.
The self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Ministry said on Twitter that Azerbaijan attacked Karabakh villages and military units with artillery and air forces, killing a child and wounding two.
“Karabakh army conducts effective protection, causing serious losses to Azerbaijan. We shot down a helicopter attacking to our positions,” the Twitter account said.
The Azerbaijani Defence Ministry, quoted by Russian media, said in response that “the information about the downed helicopter was absolute lie and all vehicles were in place. It was another provocation on the part of Armenia”.
The ministry also said the fighting began when Armenian forces fired mortars and large-calibre artillery shells across the front line.
Maria Titzian, a lecturer at the American University of Armenia, told Al Jazeera: “For the past 20 months Azerbaijan has been escalating tensions in terms of truce violations.”
She added that Azerbaijan was trying to “derail the peace process” as she called on the international community to do more. The violence, she also said, was at its worst since 1994.
“This corner of the world has been long ignored,” she said. “I think it’s time for the world to pay greater attention to the situation here. It will have a large influence on the greater region if this issue is not resolved peacefully.”[Source: Al-Jazeera]