World News

Russia says Islamist fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict pose threat to Moscow

FILE PHOTO: Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, delivers a speech during the annual Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in Moscow, Russia April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s foreign intelligence chief warned on Tuesday that a widening conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave was drawing in thousands of Islamist radicals who posed a threat to Moscow.

Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR Foreign Intelligence Service, said that the conflict, which broke out on Sept. 27, was attracting people he described as mercenaries and terrorists from the Middle East.

Naryshkin singled out members of militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group active in Syria formerly known as the Nusra Front, as well as Firqat al-Hamza, the Sultan Murad Division, and unnamed extremist Kurdish groups.

“We are talking about hundreds and already even thousands of radicals hoping to earn money in a new Karabakh war,” Naryshkin said in a statement posted on the SVR’s website.

“We can’t not be worried that the South Caucasus is capable of becoming a new launch pad for international terrorist organisations from where militants could later cross into states that neighbour Azerbaijan and Armenia, including Russia”.

The fighting in the enclave, that belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but is governed by ethnic Armenians, has increased concern that a wider conflict could be triggered, dragging in Turkey, which has expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.

Naryshkin said a new war in the region was unacceptable to Moscow and said the latest upsurge in fighting was different from previous flare-ups due to its much larger scale and the fact that Turkey had for the first time so openly and strongly come out in support of Azerbaijan.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday accused Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan of stirring up the conflict. Ankara has denied sending mercenaries to take part in the fighting.

Sooner or later, Naryshkin predicted that the warring partners under international pressure would agree to a ceasefire and sit down at the negotiating table, a prospect which Ankara has made clear it strongly opposes.

Additional reporting by Maxim Rodioniov and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber