Azerbaijan launches ‘anti-terrorist’ operation in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said it had begun “local anti-terrorist activities” in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to drive out what it claimed were Armenian troops and “restore constitutional order”.

The military strikes on Tuesday appeared to mark a return to open hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has been under effective Armenian control since a separatist war that broke out in 1988 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union before a 1994 ceasefire.

Armenia’s foreign ministry said Azerbaijan had begun a “large-scale military offensive against the Republic of Artsakh,” the Armenian name for the region. “At this moment the capital Stepanakert and other cities and villages are under intensive fire,” the ministry said.

European Council president Charles Michel called the attack “devastating news.”

Michel said: “Military actions of Azerbaijan must be immediately halted to allow for a genuine dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians.”

On videos shown on social media, sirens could be heard in Stepanakert as explosions in the nearby mountains sent plumes of smoke into the air.

The fighting marked the biggest flare-up in the decades-long conflict since the 2020 war in which Azerbaijan, with support from Turkey, regained control of some of the enclave, as well as several surrounding territories.

Since last December it has blockaded the only road linking the region with Armenia, leading to shortages of food, medical supplies, as well as frequent power cuts.

In a sign that Azerbaijan is seeking to regain full control over the enclave, which is populated by ethnic Armenians, Baku’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that “the only way to achieve peace and stability in the region” was for Armenia’s troops to withdraw and Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian government to be dissolved.

Justifying Tuesday’s military strikes, Azerbaijan cited landmine explosions that killed four troops and two civilians in the area a day earlier, claiming that Armenia’s armed forces were creating “a serious threat to regional peace and stability”. Armenia’s defence ministry denies it has any troops in the region.

Toivo Klaar, the EU’s special representative for the South Caucasus, said reports of the deaths from the mine explosions were “tragic” but warned “ongoing military action will only worsen the situation”.

Klaar wrote on X, formerly Twitter, of an “urgent need for immediate ceasefire to allow genuine dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians as only way to achieve peaceful coexistence.”

Armenia said Azerbaijan’s accusations were a pretext “to complete its policy of ethnic cleansing” and called on Russia “to take clear and unequivocal steps to end Azerbaijan’s aggression.”

A Russian peacekeeping contingent in the region has largely stood by despite Moscow’s pledge to protect “the connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia” in an agreement it brokered to end the 2020 war.

The stand-off has highlighted how Russia, the region’s traditional power broker, is losing influence in its “near abroad” after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine last year.

Russia is “concerned” about the escalation and is working to bring the conflict back on the diplomatic track, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.

Russia is in contact with both parties “at various levels” and there is a possibility of “the highest-level contacts”, he said.

Russia’s foreign ministry said its peacekeepers only received advance warning of the attack from Azerbaijan a few minutes before it started.

Later on Tuesday, Hikmet Hajiyev, a senior presidential aide, said Azerbaijan had already hit its main targets and the operations would continue in a “more limited format,” according to Russian state newswire Tass.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist defence ministry then said “the intensity of fire along the line of contact has been significantly reduced”. 

Armenia, a majority Christian country that had traditionally looked to Russia as its protector, has sought western support to broker the stand-off with oil-rich, mostly Muslim Azerbaijan and expressed frustration at the lack of backing from Moscow.

The EU has attempted to step into the vacuum created by Moscow through several rounds of talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan, most recently in July.

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, has floated quitting the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance, cancelled CSTO drills set to be held in the country, and instead began joint exercises with US troops last week.

Russia summoned Armenia’s ambassador for a “difficult” conversation this month after Yerevan sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the first time and Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, visited Kyiv.

Russia’s foreign ministry said Armenia’s “recent actions are creating favourable grounds for the west’s hostile policy towards Russia” but added Moscow was committed to working with Yerevan.

Additional reporting by Anastasia Stognei

Source: Financial Times

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