Turkey stands by Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Davutoglu

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday condemned what he said were Armenian attacks in Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and said Turkey would continue to stand by Azerbaijan in the conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu makes a speech in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

Azerbaijan said 16 Azeri servicemen had been killed in fighting around the Armenian-backed region in two days, as a flare-up of the decades-old conflict showed no sign of abating.

Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over the mountainous territory, whose population are mostly ethnic Armenian, in the early 1990s in which thousands were killed on both sides, and hundreds of thousands displaced

A return to conflict could drag in Russia, which has a defense alliance with Armenia, and NATO member Turkey, which backs its ethnic kin in Azerbaijan.

“I express my condolences to all Azeris ... over the deaths of Azeri citizens resulting from Armenian attacks,” Davutoglu told a meeting of his AK Party in parliament, adding that he had called Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.

“The whole world needs to know that Turkey will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Azerbaijan against Armenian aggression and occupation until the end of time,” Davutoglu said.

There have been sporadic bouts of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh since a fragile truce was declared in 1994. But the ceasefire was shattered over the weekend with the fiercest fighting in years, and dozens have been killed on both sides.

Turkey and Russia also back opposing sides in the Syrian war and have been at daggers drawn since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian-Turkish border last November.

“While Russian air strikes against Turkey-backed rebels in Syria continue, the South Caucasus - namely Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia - has traditionally been the main chessboard of their longstanding rivalry,” defense analyst Can Kasapoglu wrote in a note for the Washington Institute think tank.

“Given Moscow’s adventurism in Crimea to the north and Syria to the south, Ankara sees the recent moves to the east as a particularly menacing threat and has expanded its military partnership with Turkic Azerbaijan in response.” He said direct conflict was unlikely, however.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Kevin Liffey