Rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have erupted into violence on the border between the two former Soviet states, fuelling fears of an all-out armed conflict in the region.
At least 23 people are reported to have been killed on Sunday in deadly clashes over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
As both sides reported that civilians were among the dead, Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, warned that “we are a step away from a large-scale war”.
What has happened?
Both sides have blamed each other for the resumption of deadly attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh, following a lengthy period of relative peace in the region.
As the hostilities continue, the Azerbaijan Defence Ministry has “claimed that Armenian forces started shelling the town of Tartar on Monday morning”, while Armenian officials insist the rival authorities in Baku are overseeing “offensive actions” in the area, The Independent says.
Azerbaijan’s army also “said it had taken control of several villages in Nagorno-Karabakh as of Sunday afternoon”, The Guardian adds – a claim that has been rejected by Armenia.
Reports about what is happening on the ground are equally confusing, with tallies of deaths varying significantly.
Although most international news outlets say the total is at least 23, Nagorno-Karabakh officials have claimed that 31 of their servicemen alone have been killed, with more than 200 further people wounded.
And Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry has told Russia independent Interfax news agency that more than 550 Armenian troops have been killed.
The clashes mark “the worst escalation in violence since 2016” between the two sides, says Al Jazeera, which reports that “most of the international community, including the United States, Russia, Iran and European powers”, have been calling for an end to hostilities and the start of peace talks.
What is Nagorno-Karabakh?
Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians as Artsakh, is a small region in central Azerbaijan. In 1918, the two nations went to war for control of the area after both declared independence from Russia following that country’s Bolshevik Revolution.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijian were brought under full Soviet control in 1920 and remained relatively peaceful for decades. But as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, the Armenia-Azerbaijan War erupted, with a number of territories in the two nations changing hands multiple times.
By the end of the war, in 1994, the Armenians were in full control of most of the enclave and also held and currently control seven regions beyond the administrative borders of Nagorno-Karabakh. These regions have been under the administrative authority of the so-called Republic of Artsakh, a breakaway state heavily reliant on Armenian support.
Armenia claims the right to control Nagorno-Karabakh owing to the region’s long-standing Armenian ethnic make-up, with a 2015 census showing that 99.7% of the population is ethnically Armenian. There is also a significant religious divide between the two countries, with Armenia being predominantly Christian, while Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Muslim.
But Armenia’s claim to the region – along with the Republic of Artsakh itself – has not been recognised by any UN members, all of whom still consider the disputed areas as being under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.
So are the two nations at war?
Following the fresh outbreak of violence, France, Germany, Italy, and the EU swiftly urged an “immediate ceasefire”, while Pope Francis said he was praying for peace, The Moscow Times reports.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also called for “an end to hostilities”.
Meanwhile, the US State Department said Washington had contacted the authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan “to urge both sides to cease hostilities immediately, to use the existing direct communication links between them to avoid further escalation, and to avoid unhelpful rhetoric and actions”.
The long-running dispute in the Caucasus “attracts regional and Western concern because the area is a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to global markets”, The Guardian reports.
But some foreign powers are taking a less cautious tone, with Turkey, a long-standing ally of Azerbaijan, blaming Armenia for the flare-up.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted: “The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always.”
Some commentators have suggested that the recent flare-ups are the result of a lack of international intervention in the long-running dispute.
“One of the main reasons for the current escalation is a lack of any proactive international mediation between the sides for weeks,” the International Crisis Group’s Vartanyan told Foreign Policy magazine.
“If anyone was preparing for this, they did a bad job.”