Nagorno-Karabakh says two soldiers killed by Azeri gunfire

YEREVAN (Reuters) - The Armenian-backed breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh said two of its soldiers were killed by gunfire from Azerbaijan early on Tuesday, as tensions simmered weeks after an eruption of clashes.

Armenian artillery is seen near Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Staff

Both sides said they exchanged fire overnight and blamed each other for starting the fighting.

A Moscow-brokered ceasefire halted four days of violence in the South Caucasus region on April 5, but sporadic shooting is still frequent at night.

The mountainous enclave is within Azerbaijan’s borders, but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians who reject Azerbaijan’s rule.

With support from Armenia they fought a war in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union crumbled to establish de facto control over the territory.

The defense ministry in the rebel region accused the Azeri armed forces on Tuesday of violating the ceasefire more than 80 times “with the use of almost all types of artillery and armor in (Azerbaijan’s) arsenal”.

It said it had had to return fire, “causing significant losses in the enemy’s manpower and military equipment”.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry, which made no mention of any losses on its side, said it had carried out a “retaliatory strike” after the Armenian army hit its positions from multiple rocket launchers.

It said the entire responsibility for events on the contact line separating the sides of the conflict “rests with the military-political and criminal leadership of Armenia”.

Later on Tuesday, Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan dismissed three senior officials from the armed forces, including a deputy defense minister. No official reason was given for the dismissal.

Independent analyst Tigran Abrahamyan told Reuters the sackings were probably linked to the four-day war this month.

The fighting this month was the most intense since a 1994 ceasefire that stopped the conflict but did not resolve the underlying dispute.

Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan; Additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Maria Kiselyova and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth