YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia said on Friday three civilians were killed and two were wounded in an attack by Azeri forces in several villages near the border between the two former Soviet republics.
The deaths occurred in Armenia's Tavush region in the country's north-east as a result of artillery shelling and gunfire from the Azeri forces late on Thursday, Armenian police spokesman Ashot Aharonyan told Reuters.
Armenia's defense ministry confirmed the information and, in a statement, called on the Azeri side "to refrain from any steps which are aimed at escalation of the situation."
Azeri officials were not immediately available for comment
but the country's defense ministry said earlier on Thursday that Azeri villages in the same area near the border had come under fire from the Armenian side and its armed forces had responded.
Clashes along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by majority ethnic Armenians, have stoked fears of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus, which is crossed by oil and gas pipelines.
Sporadic clashes between the two have thwarted international efforts to end the dispute that broke out in the dying years of the Soviet Union and has killed about 30,000 people.
Nagorno-Karabakh has run its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia since the war. Armenian-backed forces also hold seven Azeri districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.
Efforts to reach a permanent settlement have failed, despite mediation led by France, Russia and the United States.
Oil-producing Azerbaijan, host to global majors including BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil, frequently threatens to take the mountain region back by force, and is spending heavily on its armed forces.
Armenia, an ally of Russia, says it would not stand by if Nagorno-Karabakh were attacked.
(Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by James Dalgleish)