BAKU (Reuters) -Azerbaijan launched military action in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a step that could presage a new war in the volatile area but which Baku said was necessary to restore constitutional order and drive out Armenian military formations.
Karabakh is internationally recognised 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 at the centre of two wars – the latest in 2020 – since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
It was not clear whether Baku’s actions would trigger a full-scale conflict dragging in neighbouring Armenia or be a more limited military operation. But there were already signs of political fallout in Yerevan where Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke of calls for a coup against him.
The fighting could alter the geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus region, which is crisscrossed with oil and gas pipelines, and where Russia – distracted by its own war in Ukraine – is seeking to preserve its influence in the face of greater interest from Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan.
Loud and repeated shelling was audible from social media footage filmed in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, called Khankendi by Azerbaijan, on Tuesday.
The Karabakh separatist human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan, said that two civilians had been killed and 11 people injured as a result of strikes by Azerbaijan’s military. Reuters could not immediately verify his assertion.
In a statement announcing its operation, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry spoke of its intention to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories, (and) neutralise their military infrastructure”.
It said it was only targeting legitimate military targets using “high-precision weapons” and not civilians as part of what it called a drive to “restore the constitutional order of the Republic of Azerbaijan”.
Civilians were free to leave by 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 of what he called “ethnic cleansing”, an accusation Baku denies.
Ethnic Armenian forces in Karabakh said Azerbaijani forces were trying to break through their defences after heavy shelling, but that they were holding the line for now.
Armenia, which had been holding peace talks with Azerbaijan, including on questions about 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 claimed responsibility for the aggression,” Armenia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Reuters could not immediately verify battlefield assertions from either side.
APPEAL FOR HELP
Armenia, which says its armed forces are not in Karabakh and that the situation on its own border with Azerbaijan is stable, called on members of the U.N. Security Council to help and for Russian peacekeepers on the ground to intervene.
Russia, which brokered a fragile ceasefire after the war in 2020 which saw Azerbaijan recapture swathes of land in and around Karabakh that it had lost in an earlier conflict in the 1990s, called for all sides to stop fighting.
Russia is in touch with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and has urged negotiations to resolve the Karabakh conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday, adding that Moscow considered ensuring civilian safety 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 rumbling in the background, Ruben Vardanyan, a banker who was a top official in Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration until February, appealed for Armenia to recognise 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 started a full-scale military operation against 120,000 inhabitants, of which 30,000 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 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to demand the authorities take action.
Baku announced its operation after complaining that six of its citizens had been killed by land mines in two separate incidents, something it blamed on “illegal Armenian armed groups.” Armenia said the claims were false.
The escalation occurred a day after badly needed food and medicine was delivered to Karabakh along two roads simultaneously, a step that looked like it could help defuse mounting tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Until the last few days, Baku had imposed sweeping restrictions on the Lachin corridor – the only road linking Armenia with Karabakh – and had blocked aid on the grounds that the route was purportedly being used for arms smuggling.
Yerevan had said that Baku’s actions had caused a humanitarian catastrophe, something Azerbaijan denied, and were illegal.
Armenia’s foreign ministry had said on Monday that Azerbaijan’s diplomatic stance looked like it was preparing the ground for some kind of military action.
(Reporting by ReutersWriting by Andrew OsbornEditing by)