BAKUÂ – Azerbaijan accused neighbor Armenia on Wednesday of stoking unrest in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, following shooting there in which Azerbaijan said 16 soldiers had been killed.
The Azeri Defense Ministry said 12 Armenian forces and four Azeri soldiers were killed during clashes in the disputed enclave, seized by pro-Armenian forces from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s in which an estimated 35,000 people died.
The ministry said the clashes had lasted 13 hours on Tuesday, killing three Azeri soldiers. The fourth serviceman died in a new shootout on Wednesday.
Armenia has blamed the Azeri for Tuesday’s incident but has given no clear casualty figures.
A death toll of 16 would mark the worst skirmish in recent years between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, who are still technically at war with each other.
“The Armenian side resorted to provocations on the frontline in a bid to switch the attention of the international community and its own citizens from internal tensions to an external enemy,” said an Azeri foreign ministry spokesman.
“Azerbaijan will never resort to provocations, but will give a proper response to them,” Khazar Ibrahim added.
The West is closely watching the latest flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a big oil producer and home to pipelines taking oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to world markets.
“We do not want a war in the region,” said a U.S. diplomat in Baku. “We are following the situation very closely and we urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid any violence.”
Robert Simmons, NATO’s envoy for the region, said the alliance was ready to help facilitate the peace process.
“I think there is a chance for settlement and we will work for it,” he was quoted as saying on a visit to Moscow by Russian news agencies. “We are closely watching the peace process.”
Armenian President Robert Kocharyan imposed a state of emergency on March 1 following protests against last month’s presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged.
Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, broke away from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s, sparking a 1992-94 war between Armenian-backed separatists and the Azeri army.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said this week his country was ready to take back Nagorno-Karabakh by force if need be, and was buying military equipment and arms in preparation.
He said Kosovo’s newly declared independence had emboldened Armenian separatists in the mountainous enclave.
On Tuesday Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sarksyan confirmed there had been an incident between Azeri and Armenian soldiers but he did not give a casualty figure.
Over 35,000 people were killed in the civil war and over one million people were displaced.
A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but the territory remains under Armenian control, there are sporadic clashes along the front line and the search for a lasting peace is stalled.
But a Western diplomat in Armenia said the latest reports of a gun fight had to be treated seriously.
“This does sound in the terms it’s been reported as slightly more than the usual skirmish, but in the current climate it certainly could have been exaggerated,” he said. “This is a situation we have to watch carefully.”