BAKU/YEREVAN (REUTERS, AFP) – Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other of killing civilians by shelling cities in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday (Oct 28), in an escalation of a month-long conflict over the mountain enclave that has defied three ceasefires.
Azerbaijan said 19 people were killed when Armenian shells hit the town of Barda, north-east of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian-backed officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Azeri shells had fallen on the enclave’s two largest cities, killing one person.
Both sides denied each other’s claims.
The worst fighting in the South Caucasus for nearly 30 years has raised fears of a wider war that could suck in Russia and Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan. It also poses a threat to pipelines carrying oil and gas from Azerbaijan to world markets.
Armenia’s defence ministry also confirmed on Wednesday that Azerbaijan had seized the town of Gubadli between the enclave and the Iranian border, an apparent military gain that could make a diplomatic solution more difficult.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
About 30,000 people were killed in a 1991-94 war in the region.
Azerbaijan rejects any solution that would leave Armenians in control of the enclave, which it considers to be illegally occupied.
Armenia regards the territory as part of its historic homeland and says the population there needs its protection.
Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said Armenian forces had fired Smerch missiles against Barda and the prosecutor general’s office said 19 civilians had been killed and 60 wounded. It earlier put the number of deaths at 14.
Armenian defence ministry spokesman Shushan Stepanyan denied the claim. “The statement of the ministry of defence of Azerbaijan that the Armed Forces of Armenia allegedly hit the town of Barda with Smerch is groundless and false,” she said on Facebook.
The Emergency and Rescue Service of ethnic Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh said shells had fallen on Stepanakert, the enclave’s largest city. It said a civilian had been killed by shelling in another city, Shushi, 15km to the south.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
The Nagorno-Karabakh defence ministry has recorded 1,068 military deaths since fighting erupted on Sept 27. Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military casualties. Russia has estimated as many as 5,000 deaths in all.
The latest of three ceasefires was brokered in Washington on Sunday. US President Donald Trump called the renewed fighting “disappointing” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged both sides to pursue a diplomatic solution.
The OSCE Minsk Group, formed to mediate the conflict and led by France, Russia and the United States, is scheduled to meet the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers in Geneva on Thursday.
Turkey has demanded a bigger role in the group.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, expressed concerns over what he said was the increased involvement of fighters from the Middle East.
Mr Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey was sincere in its efforts to solve the conflict and he believed in Russia’s sincerity. He said he had told Mr Putin that Armenia was using Kurdish militants.