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Azerbaijan sparks fears of new war with Armenia after launching military assault in Nagorno-Karabakh

Concerns are growing that a new war could break out in eastern Europe after Azerbaijan launched a major military escalation in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that it labelled an “anti-terrorist” operation.

The Azerbaijani defence ministry said it had launched “anti-terrorist measures of a local nature” in the breakaway region “to disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories” after accusing Armenia of “systematic shelling” of its army positions.

Azerbaijan claimed it was not targeting civilians or civilian facilities, and that “only legitimate military targets are being incapacitated by the use of high-precision weapons”.

However, Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh reported heavy shelling of the region’s capital, Stepanakert, and other villages. Its defence ministry said Azerbaijan’s claims of Armenian military fire did not correspond with reality.

The operation was announced hours after four soldiers and two civilians were killed in landmine explosions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s interior ministry, state security service and prosecutor-general said in a statement that two employees of the highway department died when their vehicle was blown up by a mine and that a truckload of soldiers responding to the incident hit another mine, killing four.

In this photo taken from video released by Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, smoke rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces' positions in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan on Tuesday declared that it started what it called an "anti-terrorist operation" targeting Armenian military positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and officials in that region said there was heavy artillery firing around its capital. (Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan via AP)
A still from a video released by the Azerbaijan defence ministry on Tuesday showing smoke rising over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces’ positions in Nagorno-Karabakh (Photo: Defence ministry of Azerbaijan via AP)

The latest violent flare-up has raised concerns that another full-scale war over the region could resume.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the south of the country, is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan but its inhabitants are predominantly ethnic Armenians. The region is controlled by Armenian authorities backed by Armenia.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been intermittent fighting between the two sides, but war between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out in 2020, with Azerbaijan launching a 44-day military operation that resulted in its taking back about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh.

That war ended with an armistice, with Russian peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Since December, Azerbaijan has effectively blockaded the only route into the enclave from Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor.

The EU has condemned the military escalation and called on Azerbaijan to withdraw.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said: “There is an urgent need to return to dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians. This military escalation should not be used as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population.”

The US said diplomatic engagement was under way on tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, adding that the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was likely to get involved.

The latest hostilities come amid high tensions between Armenia and its ally Russia.

Armenia has repeatedly complained that the 3,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force is not keeping the road to Armenia open even though that duty was stipulated in the deal that ended the 2020 war.

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