Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces clashed in several parts of Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday, hours before talks were due to start in Washington to try to end the deadliest fighting in the mountain enclave for over a quarter of a century.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to meet the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in a new attempt to end nearly a month of bloodshed in which Russian President Vladimir Putin said 5,000 people may have been killed.
The collapse of two Russia-brokered ceasefires has dimmed hopes of a quick end to fighting that broke out on Sept. 27 over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway territory which is within Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians.
World powers want to prevent a wider war that draws in Turkey, which has voiced strong support for Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.
Shortly before the Washington talks were due to start, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul that he hoped Moscow and Ankara could work together on resolving the conflict.
Reiterating demands for a Turkish role in mediation which has long been led by the United States, Russia and France, he said: “Turkey believes it has just as much right as Russia to be involved here for peace.”
Washington, Paris and Moscow have ignored such calls, and differences over the conflict have further strained relations between Ankara and its NATO allies, with Pompeo accusing Turkey of fuelling the conflict by arming the Azeri side. Ankara has denied the charge.
In the latest clashes, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry reported fighting in areas including territories close to the line of contact that divides the sides.
Armenia’s defence ministry also reported fighting in several areas and said the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh was shelled during the night. Azerbaijan denied this.
Azerbaijan has expressed concern about the security of pipelines close to the fighting that carry Azeri oil and gas through the South Caucasus to world markets, but none has been damaged.
Pompeo is expected to hold separate talks with Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. It is not clear whether the two former Soviet republics’ ministers will meet directly.
Pompeo said this week he hoped the “right path forward” could be found at the talks, but Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he saw no diplomatic resolution of the long-running conflict at this stage.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has described the prospects of reaching a peace settlement as “very remote”, and demanded promises that Azerbaijan will be handed back control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
About 30,000 people were killed in a 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians regard the territory as part of their historic homeland and accuse Azerbaijan of making a land grab in the recent fighting.
Azeri forces say they have made territorial gains, including full control over the border with Iran, which Armenia denies. Nagorno-Karabakh says its forces have repeatedly repulsed attacks and have the situation under control.
Source – News Agencies