An Armenian serviceman fires a cannon towards Azerbaijan positions in the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (AP)
Armenia and Azerbaijan accused one another on Tuesday of firing directly into each other’s territory and rejected pressure to hold peace talks as their conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh threatened to spill over into all-out war.
Both reported firing from the other side across their shared border, well to the west of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region over which fierce fighting broke out between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces on Sunday.
The incidents signalled a further escalation of the conflict despite urgent appeals from Russia, the United States and others to halt it.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, speaking to Russian state TV, flatly ruled out any possibility of talks.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told the same channel that talks could not take place while fighting continued.
Further fuelling tensions between the two former Soviet republics, Armenia said an F-16 fighter jet belonging to Azerbaijan’s close ally Turkey had shot down one of its warplanes over Armenian airspace, killing the pilot.
It provided no evidence of the incident. Turkey and Azerbaijan called the claim “absolutely untrue”.
Dozens of people have been reported killed and hundreds wounded since clashes between Azerbaijan and its ethnic Armenian mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh broke out on Sunday.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a breakaway region that is inside Azerbaijan but is run by ethnic Armenians and is supported by Armenia. It broke away from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s, but is not recognised by any country as an independent republic.
A descent into all-out war could drag in regional powers Russia and Turkey. Moscow has a defence alliance with Armenia, which is the enclave’s lifeline to the outside world, while Ankara backs its own ethnic Turkic kin in Azerbaijan.
An Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman said the Armenian Sukhoi Su-25 warplane had been on a military assignment when it was downed by an F-16 fighter jet owned by the Turkish air force.
Turkey’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said: “Armenia should withdraw from the territories under its occupation instead of resorting to cheap propaganda tricks.”
Azeri presidential aide Hikmat Hajiyev told Reuters: “The Su-25 was not even detected by our radars. Let Armenia present evidence.”
The Kremlin said earlier that Moscow was in constant contact with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan over the conflict. Any talk of providing military support for the opposing sides would only add fuel to the fire, it said.
Azerbaijan’s prosecutor’s office said 12 Azeri civilians had so far been killed and 35 wounded by Armenian fire. The Azeri side has not disclosed military casualties.
Nagorno-Karabakh has reported the loss of at least 84 soldiers. Armenia said on Tuesday that a 9-year-old girl was killed in shelling, while her mother and a brother were wounded. A mother and her child were killed on Sunday, the defence ministry of Nagorno-Karabakh said.
In a sign that fighting was spreading, Armenia’s foreign ministry reported the first death in Armenia proper - a civilian it said was killed in an Azeri attack in the town of Vardenis more than 20 km (12 miles) from Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Armenian defence ministry said an Armenian civilian bus caught fire in the town after being hit by an Azeri drone. It was not clear if the reported civilian death was from that incident.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said that from Vardenis the Armenian army had shelled the Dashkesan region inside Azerbaijan. Armenia denied those reports.
The clashes have reignited concern over stability in the South Caucasus region, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said both sides had attempted to recover lost ground by mounting counter-attacks in the directions of Fizuli, Jabrayil, Agdere - Armenian-occupied areas of Azerbaijan that border Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia reported fighting throughout the night, and said that Nagorno-Karabakh’s army had repelled attacks in several directions along the line of contact.