Russia, Iran join talks over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
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Russia, Iran join talks over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Armenia and Azerbaijan accuse each other of violating two-day-old ceasefire after dozens killed in clashes

Armenian soldiers pose near a frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, April 6, 2016. (Karo Sahakyan/PAN via AP)
Armenian soldiers pose near a frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, April 6, 2016. (Karo Sahakyan/PAN via AP)

BAKU, Azerbaijan — The foreign ministers of Russia and Iran have joined efforts to prevent a new war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh, where both sides have accused the other of violating a two-day-old cease-fire.

The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers were meeting with their Azerbaijani counterpart in Baku on Thursday, and the Russian prime minister was due in the Armenian capital later in the day.

Fighting that erupted over the weekend has killed at least 64 people and is the worst outbreak of violence since a separatist war ended in 1994 and left Nagorno-Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan, under the control of local Armenian forces and the Armenian military.

Both sides on Thursday accused the other of violating the cease-fire, with Nagorno-Karabakh’s military saying one of its soldiers was killed.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said its troops have been observing a cease-fire in the region since midday Tuesday following three days of intense battles involving heavy artillery and rockets. The ministry accused Armenian forces of breaking the truce on several occasions Wednesday by firing mortars at Azerbaijani positions, adding that Azerbaijani forces had not returned fire.

The ministry late Wednesday also claimed Armenian forces had shelled the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan after the cease-fire was declared. Nakhchivan is surrounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey.

Nagorno-Karabakh military spokesman Senor Asratyan insisted its forces have strictly respected the cease-fire, which was agreed upon by the top military officers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, who met in Moscow on Tuesday.

Nagorno-Karabakh army artillerymen prepare to open fire from a howitzer on positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, April 5, 2016. (Vahan Stepanyan/PAN via AP)
Nagorno-Karabakh army artillerymen prepare to open fire from a howitzer on positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, April 5, 2016. (Vahan Stepanyan/PAN via AP)

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said 31 of its soldiers have been killed since Saturday; Karabakh acknowledged the loss of 29 and said another 101 have been wounded. Each party put enemy losses in the hundreds, rival claims that couldn’t be independently verified.

Mustagim Mammadov, a local official in Azerbaijan’s Terter region, said three civilians were killed and six wounded. He said Armenian forces fired automatic weapons overnight at front-line villages but there was no fighting during the day Wednesday. Speaking from the village of Gapanli, he said life was getting back to normal as a local school reopened.

The fighting had raised fears of a possible escalation in hostilities, with Turkey strongly backing Azerbaijan and Russia obliged to protect Armenia by a mutual security pact.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had separate phone calls Tuesday with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, urging them to honor the cease-fire. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev Wednesday, offering to help ensure that the truce will last and to contribute to a political settlement.

Russia has supplied weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, reflecting its desire to expand its influence in the strategic South Caucasus region, a key conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea to the West. That has angered many in Armenia, which has hosted a Russian military base and maintained close security and economic ties with Moscow.

Asked about Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan during a visit to Berlin, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said Wednesday it was “painful” to see that.

Mother of Karabakh military officer Armenak Urfanyan grieves at a coffin with the body of her son who was killed in fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, during a funeral ceremony in a church in Yerevan, Armenia, April 5, 2016. (Aram Kirakosyan/PAN via AP)
Mother of Karabakh military officer Armenak Urfanyan grieves at a coffin with the body of her son who was killed in fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh, during a funeral ceremony in a church in Yerevan, Armenia, April 5, 2016. (Aram Kirakosyan/PAN via AP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized after the talks with Sargsyan that upholding the cease-fire is the top priority.

“We have to do everything to stop the bloodshed, to stop people dying,” Merkel said. “Because as long as the fighting is going on, no political solution can move ahead.”

Each side accuses the other of sparking the outburst.

In Washington, Armenian Ambassador Grigor Hovhannissian told The Associated Press that he believed Azerbaijan launched an offensive as an effort to divert domestic attention from “social unrest and discotent throughout the country.”

In a separate interview, Azerbaijan Ambassador Elin Suleymanov accused Armenian forces of starting the battle to divert attention from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyeav’s recent visit to Washington, which he described as highly successful.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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