Four Armenians and one Azeri killed in Karabakh clash

YEREVAN Sat Jun 19, 2010 1:04pm EDT

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Four ethnic Armenian troops and one Azeri soldier were killed in an exchange of fire near Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, the region's military said Saturday.

Skirmishes, sometimes fatal, erupt frequently along front lines near Nagorno-Karabakh, a small mountainous region under the control of ethnic Armenians who fought a six-year separatist war with support from neighboring Armenia.

The ethnic-Armenian controlled military said in a statement its soldiers repelled an Azeri attack late Friday, in which four ethnic Armenian soldiers were killed and four wounded.

In Baku, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry confirmed a clash took place and an Azeri soldier was killed.

An estimated 30,000 people were killed and 1 million displaced before a ceasefire in 1994 but a peace accord has never been agreed and the ethnic Armenian leadership's independence claim has not been recognized by any country.

A day before Friday's clash, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met, together with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and agreed to continue internationally mediated efforts to resolve the conflict.

Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, speaking to reporters on Saturday on the sidelines of the St Petersburg Economic Forum in Russia, said the clash was an Azeri provocation, which was "all the more unacceptable" since it occurred hours after the meeting.

The dispute between mostly Muslim Azerbaijan and mostly Christian Armenia remains a threat to stability in the South Caucasus, an important route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian region to Europe.

More than a decade of mediation led by Russia, France and the United States has failed to produce a final peace deal and Azerbaijan has said it may use force to try to regain control of Nagorno-Karbakh.

Tension has increased since Armenia and its traditional foe Turkey, which has close ties to Azerbaijan, reached an historic rapprochement last year.

The accord crumbled this year when Armenia suspended ratification after Turkish demands that it first reach terms over Nagorno-Karabakh, a condition set by Turkey to appease Azerbaijan, an oil and gas producer.

(Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Lada Yevgrashina in Baku; writing by Maria Kiselyova ; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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