YEREVAN: Armenia said early on Sunday that neighboring Azerbaijan had attacked civilian settlements in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and urged the population in the disputed region to seek refuge in shelters.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry said that its troops had downed two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones in response to an attack it said began at 0410 GMT against civilian settlements, including the regional capital of Stepanakert.
“Our response will be proportionate, and the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan bears full responsibility for the situation,” the Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also said it was checking reports about combatants from Syria who are allegedly fighting for the Azerbaijan’s side.
Hikmet Hajjiyev, the foreign policy aide to the Azeri president, dismissed the report carried by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as “nonsense.”
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, in turn, said it had launched a military operation along the “contact line,” a heavily-mined no-man’s-land that separates the Armenian-backed forces from Azeri troops in the region, Russian news agencies reported.
The ministry said that an Azerbaijani helicopter had been downed but that its crew had survived.
Azerbaijan’s general prosecution office also said on Sunday that five people from one family have been killed by the shelling from Armenia’s forces, the first civilian casualties from Baku.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Sunday warned the international community of Turkish interference in fresh fighting that erupted between his country and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region.
“I call on the international community to use all existing levers to prevent Turkey’s meddling (in the conflict) which can once and for all destabilize the (Caucasus) region,” Pashinyan said in a televised statement.
He added that Turkish “aggressive behavior causes serious concerns,” and denounced Ankara’s support for its ally Baku.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “extremely concerned over the fresh resumption of hostilities” between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“The Secretary-General strongly calls on the sides to immediately stop fighting, de-escalate tensions and return to meaningful negotiations without delay,” Guterres’s spokesman said in a statement.
Guterres “condemns the use of force and regrets the loss of life and the toll on the civilian population,” the statement said, adding that the secretary-general would speak to the president of Azerbaijan and the prime minister of Armenia.
France, Germany, Italy and the European Union also urged an immediate cease-fire, while Pope Francis prayed for peace.
The US condemned the escalating violence and called on both sides to cease hostilities immediately.
The State Department said in a statement that both sides should immediately end the violence, as well as any rhetoric or other actions that could worsen tensions. It also said any participation in the escalating violence by outside parties would be “deeply unhelpful.”
Meanwhile, Turkey vowed complete support for Baku and called on Armenia to give up its “aggression.”
“We will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means in their fight to protect their territorial integrity,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in a statement.
Turkey is a key ally of Baku with close cultural and linguistic ties with Azerbaijan.
Ankara has no diplomatic relations with Yerevan due to a dispute over the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire which Armenia says is a genocide.
“The greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Caucasus is Armenia’s aggression, and it should give up this aggression which will throw the region into fire,” Akar said.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin “strongly” condemned the clashes and said Armenia “once again violated international law and (has) shown that it has no interest in peace and stability.”
He called on the international community to “say stop to this dangerous provocation” in a tweet.
“Azerbaijan is not alone. It has Turkey’s full support,” Kalin added.
The Turkish foreign ministry in a statement went further, promising: “However Azerbaijan wants, we will stand by Azerbaijan in that manner.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan said that the breakaway region has lost some positions to Azerbaijan’s army amid renewed clashes.
He also said there were dead and wounded both among civilians and military personnel.
The two former Soviet countries have long been in conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway, mainly ethnic-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and border clashes have intensified in recent months.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry condemned what it called the “aggression of the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan” and said the Armenian side would deliver an appropriate military and political response.
Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence during a conflict that broke out as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Though a cease-fire was agreed in 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia frequently accuse each other of attacks around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the separate Azeri-Armenian frontier.
(With Reuters and AFP)