BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) - Azerbaijan’s president ruled out making any concessions to Armenia on Friday ahead of talks aimed at halting the deadliest fighting in the South Caucasus region for more than 25 years.
President Ilham Aliyev’s uncompromising position in a televised speech appeared to leave little room for de-escalation as the Azeri and Armenian foreign ministers arrived in Moscow. The talks were expected to be the first diplomatic contact between the enemies since fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave erupted on Sept. 27, killing hundreds of people.
The mountain enclave belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but broke away in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed and is populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.
“Let those holding talks in Moscow know that it’s our territory and we won’t be making any concessions,” Aliyev said after Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov flew to Moscow.
He said he had proved there was a military solution to the dispute: “We are winning and will get our territory back and ensure our territorial integrity,” Aliyev said. “Let them abandon our territory in peace.”
The talks in Moscow, attended by Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, follow the launch of a peace drive by France, Russia and the United States at a meeting in Geneva on Thursday, details of which have not been made public.
The renewed fighting in the decades-old conflict has raised fears of a wider war drawing in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.
The clashes have also increased concern about the security of pipelines that carry Azeri oil and gas to Europe.
The Armenian government said Friday’s talks would focus on a cessation of hostilities and exchanges of bodies and prisoners.
“We are moving towards a truce soon even if the situation is still fragile,” French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said.
But Turkey said diplomacy would succeed only if it ensured a withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians regard as part of their historic homeland.
“It is almost certain to fail if it doesn’t also involve a detailed plan to end the occupation,” Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Al Jazeera.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on Friday Nagorno-Karabakh was on the verge of a “humanitarian disaster”.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said there had been fierce clashes on Friday with ethnic Armenian forces along the line of contact that divides the two sides, and that several areas deep in Azerbaijan had come under fire.
Shells fell on Stepanakert, the city ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh consider the capital of an independent state, the enclave’s defence ministry said. Armenia denied its forces had attacked locations deeper in Azerbaijan on Friday.
Washington, Paris and Moscow have led mediation over Nagorno-Karabakh for almost three decades as co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group.
The fighting is the worst since a 1991-94 war that killed about 30,000 people and ended with a ceasefire that has been violated repeatedly.
Azerbaijan said on Thursday that 31 Azeri civilians had been killed and 168 wounded since Sept. 27. It has not disclosed information about military casualties.
Nagorno-Karabakh said on Friday 376 of its military personnel and 22 civilians had been killed since Sept. 27.
Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Michel Rose and John Irish in Paris, and Alexander Marrow and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Writing by Margarita Antidze and Timothy Heritage, Editing by Jon Boyle and Peter Graff