Fragile truce largely holding in Karabakh after 4 days of deadly clashes

AFP , Wednesday 6 Apr 2016

Azerbaijan Armenia
Nagorno-Karabakh army artillerymen prepare to open fire from a howitzer on positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, April 5, 2016 (Photo: AP)

Azerbaijani and Armenian forces on Wednesday said they were largely observing a truce that halted four days of clashes which claimed scores of lives in the worst outbreak of violence in decades over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region.

"The ceasefire was largely observed overnight along the Karabakh frontline," the Armenia-backed separatist defence ministry in Karabakh said in a statement.

Azerbaijan's defence ministry said its forces were "strictly abiding by the ceasefire agreement" that was hammered out on Tuesday by the Azerbaijani and Armenian army chiefs during a meeting in Moscow.

Armenia's defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said that sporadic shooting continued on Wednesday "including from tanks, but not as intensive" as during the last days.

An AFP photographer in the village of Matagis in Karabakh, some 10 kilometres (six miles) from the frontline, confirmed that "the night was calm and without shooting."

A Karabakh army officer told the photographer that "occasional shooting has been a normal thing on the frontline for years."

"It doesn't mean that the ceasefire failed."

The fragile truce comes after at least 75 people were reported killed as the festering dispute over the territory -- which was captured from Azerbaijan by Armenian separatists in an early 1990s war -- escalated dramatically on Friday, sparking international concern.

Azerbaijan's army claimed to have snatched control of several strategic locations inside Armenian-controlled territory, effectively changing the frontline for the first time since an inconclusive truce ended the war in 1994.

"Azerbaijani troops are currently reinforcing the liberated territories," Baku's defence military said in its statement.

Yerevan, however, insists that the Azeri side has been ousted from any positions it might have snatched inside the disputed territory.

"Even if certain Armenian positions were at some point taken by Azeris, now they are all returned under Karabakh's control," Hovhannisyan, Armenia's defence ministry spokesman, told AFP on Tuesday.

In a bid to cement the truce, mediators have set out to the region to shuttle between the two warring sides in a flurry of diplomacy.

US, French and Russian envoys -- who co-chair the so-called "Minsk Group" which has long mediated Karabakh peace talks -- on Wednesday met with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in Baku.

After the meeting, the diplomats called on Baku and Yerevan to step up efforts aimed at quick resolution of the conflict, AzerTag news agency reported.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian was headed to Germany Wednesday for a long-planned visit that will see him meet Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks that are sure to focus on the surge in fighting in Karabakh.

Russian President Vladimir Putin -- the key regional power broker -- on Tuesday urged leaders in Azerbaijan and Armenia to "ensure" the truce holds, as it emerged the deal had been thrashed out by the arch-foes at talks in Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is set to travel to both Yerevan and Baku in the coming days.

France, meanwhile, also welcomed the ceasefire and called on all sides to respect it "strictly".

Both sides accused each other of starting the latest outbreak of violence and it has sparked concern of a wider conflict in the region that could drag in Russia and Turkey.

Baku said 31 of its soldiers and four civilians died in the bloodshed, while Karabakh's separatist authorities reported the deaths of 35 military and five civilians during the fierce clashes that erupted on Friday night.

While ex-Soviet master Moscow has sold arms to both sides and treads a careful line between the two, it has a military alliance with, and base in, Armenia and far closer ties to Yerevan.

Turkey -- which is locked in a feud with Moscow after Ankara downed a Russian warplane in Syria in November -- has pledged its full support for traditional ally Azerbaijan.

Separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of mountainous Nagorny Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian region lying inside Azerbaijan, in an early 1990s war that claimed some 30,000 lives.

The sides have never signed a peace deal despite the 1994 ceasefire and sporadic violence on the line of contact regularly claims the lives of soldiers on both sides.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia's entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force.

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