YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) - NATO allies France and Turkey traded angry recriminations on Wednesday as international tensions mounted over the fiercest clashes between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces since the mid-1990s.
On the fourth day of fighting, Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh accused each other of shelling along the line of contact that divides them in the volatile, mountainous South Caucasus.
Dozens have been reported killed and hundreds wounded in fighting since Sunday that has spread well beyond the enclave’s boundaries, threatening to spill over into all-out war between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The re-eruption of one of the “frozen conflicts” dating back the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union has raised concerns about stability in the South Caucasus, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets, and raised fears that regional powers Russia and Turkey could be drawn in.
Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan tweeted video of huge explosions from artillery fire, accompanied by dramatic pounding music and captioned “Takeover of an Azerbaijan position”.
Azerbaijan released footage showing its forces firing volleys of rockets at enemy emplacements, as well as grey smoke rising from inside Nagorno-Karabakh as it was battered by Azeri artillery. Photographs taken in the Azeri town of Terter showed people taking cover in dug-outs, and damaged buildings which residents said had been struck by Armenian shells.
CONCERN ABOUT TURKISH ROLE
Some of Turkey’s NATO allies are increasingly alarmed by Ankara’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region inside Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan that is run by ethnic Armenians but is not recognised by any country as an independent republic.
Echoing remarks by President Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday Turkey would “do what is necessary” when asked whether Ankara would offer military support if Azerbaijan asked for it.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, later thanked Turkey for its support but said his country did not need military assistance. Fighting would cease if Armenian forces immediately “leave our lands,” he said.
Cavusoglu also said French solidarity with Armenia amounted to supporting Armenian occupation in Azerbaijan.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is home to many people of Armenian ancestry, hit back during a visit to Latvia. He said France was extremely concerned by “warlike messages” from Turkey “which essentially remove any of Azerbaijan’s inhibitions in reconquering Nagorno-Karabakh”.
“And that we won’t accept,” he said.
MOSCOW OFFERS TO HOST TALKS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was willing to host the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan for talks, his ministry cited him as saying.
He held separate phone conversations with both foreign ministers, and the ministry said he called for a ceasefire and a halt to “provocative warlike rhetoric”.
Lavrov said Russia would continue to work both independently and together with other representatives of the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate in the conflict.
France has said it wants the Minsk Group - which is led by Moscow, Paris and Washington - to address the conflict. European Union leaders will also discuss it at a summit later this week, a German government source said.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave, broke away from Azerbaijan in the 1990s in a war that killed an estimated 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
In Wednesday’s clashes, Armenian media said three civilians had been killed and several wounded by shelling in the town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s own defence ministry said it could report 23 more casualties on Wednesday as fighting continued.
One person was killed and three wounded by Armenian fire on the town of Horadiz in southern Azerbaijan, the Azeri Prosecutor’s office said, bringing the total number of Azeri civilians killed to 15 since fighting began on Sunday.
Azerbaijan said ethnic Armenian forces attempted to recover lost ground by launching counter-attacks in the direction of Madagiz, but Azeri forces repelled the attack.
Armenia said the Azeri army had been shelling the whole front line during the night and two Azeri drones were shot down over Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s administrative centre. It was not possible to independently confirm the report.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, said he was not considering asking for Russia’s help at this point under a post-Soviet security treaty, but did not rule out doing so.
The Kremlin said Russia’s military was closely following developments.
Armenia says one of its SU-25 warplanes was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet on Tuesday but the report was denied by Turkey and Azeri officials.
Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Dmitry Antonov, Polina Ivanova and Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Michel Rose in Paris and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Mark Heinrich
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