Cease-fire largely holding around Nagorno-Karabakh

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2016 5:27 PM
Cease-fire largely holding around Nagorno-Karabakh

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A cease-fire largely held Wednesday around Nagorno-Karabakh after an outburst of fighting that raised fears of a new all-out war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. Russia sought to assuage tensions by reaching out to both sides.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said its troops have been observing a cease-fire in the region since midday Tuesday following three days of intense battles involving heavy artillery and rockets. The ministry accused Armenian forces of breaking the truce on several occasions Wednesday by firing mortars at Azerbaijani positions, adding that Azerbaijani forces had not returned fire.

The ministry late Wednesday also claimed Armenian forces had shelled the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan after the cease-fire was declared. Nakhchivan is surrounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey.

Nagorno-Karabakh military spokesman Senor Asratyan insisted its forces have strictly respected the cease-fire, which was agreed upon by the top military officers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, who met in Moscow on Tuesday.

Fighting that erupted over the weekend killed at least 63 people and marked the worst violence since a separatist war ended in 1994 and left Nagorno-Karabakh, officially a part of Azerbaijan, under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military. Armenian forces also occupy several areas outside the Karabakh region.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said 31 of its soldiers have been killed since Saturday; Karabakh acknowledged the loss of 29 and said another 101 have been wounded. Each party put enemy losses in the hundreds, rival claims that couldn't be independently verified.

Mustagim Mammadov, a local official in Azerbaijan's Terter region, said three civilians were killed and six wounded. He said Armenian forces fired automatic weapons overnight at front-line villages but there was no fighting during the day Wednesday. Speaking from the village of Gapanli, he said life was getting back to normal as a local school reopened.

The fighting had raised fears of a possible escalation in hostilities, with Turkey strongly backing Azerbaijan and Russia obliged to protect Armenia by a mutual security pact.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had separate phone calls Tuesday with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, urging them to honor the cease-fire. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev Wednesday, offering to help ensure that the truce will last and to contribute to a political settlement.

Lavrov is set to meet with his Azerbaijani and Iranian counterparts in Baku on Thursday, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will visit the Armenian capital of Yerevan on the same day.

Russia has supplied weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, reflecting its desire to expand its influence in the strategic South Caucasus region, a key conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea to the West. That has angered many in Armenia, which has hosted a Russian military base and maintained close security and economic ties with Moscow.

Asked about Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan during a visit to Berlin, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said Wednesday it was "painful" to see that.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized after the talks with Sargsyan that upholding the cease-fire is the top priority.

"We have to do everything to stop the bloodshed, to stop people dying," Merkel said. "Because as long as the fighting is going on, no political solution can move ahead."

Each side accuses the other of sparking the outburst.

In Washington, Armenian Ambassador Grigor Hovhannissian told The Associated Press that he believed Azerbaijan launched an offensive as an effort to divert domestic attention from "social unrest and discotent throughout the country."

In a separate interview, Azerbaijan Ambassador Elin Suleymanov accused Armenian forces of starting the battle to divert attention from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyeav's recent visit to Washington, which he described as highly successful.

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Avet Demourian in Yerevan, David Rising in Berlin, Maria Danilova in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.