BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — The armed forces of Azerbaijan shot down and destroyed an Armenian military helicopter in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Wednesday, the defense ministries of both countries said.
The incident threatened to set off another cycle of violence between the two South Caucasus neighbors over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan but along with some surrounding territory has been under the control of Armenian soldiers and local Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire.
"This is an unprecedented escalation, and the consequences for the Azerbaijani side will be painful," Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Ovannisian told The Associated Press.
Azerbaijan said its forces shot down the Russian-made Mi-24 helicopter gunship after it tried to attack its positions.
Nagorno-Karabakh said the helicopter belonged to its armed forces and was on a training flight near the cease-fire line. All three crew members on board were killed, a high-ranking officer with the Nagorno-Karabakh forces told the AP. The officer was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
There have been sporadic clashes in the two decades since the cease-fire ended a six-year war, but tensions rose sharply over the summer and 19 soldiers were killed in multiple confrontations.
Last month, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia met in Paris with French President Francois Hollande in an effort to ease tensions. But years of diplomatic efforts under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have made little visible progress in resolving the dispute.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry denounced the Azerbaijani action as a "criminal provocation." ''The Azerbaijani side is grossly violating the commitments on the peaceful resolution of the conflict reached during the recent summits," it said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department denounced the incident as well.
"Today's events are yet another reminder of the need to redouble efforts on a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including reducing tensions and respecting the cease-fire," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington and Associated Press writer Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, contributed to this report.