- Baku says the operation targets “terrorists” in Karabakh
- He says the goal is to restore “constitutional order.”
- The sound of the bombing is heard from the capital, Karabakh – social networking sites
- Armenia condemns “comprehensive aggression”
- This move raises the specter of war in the turbulent South Caucasus region
BAKU, Sept 19 (Reuters) – Azerbaijan launched military action in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a move that could herald a new war in the troubled region, but Baku said it was necessary to restore constitutional order and expel Armenian military formations.
Karabakh is an internationally recognized region as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it is administered by separatist authorities of Armenian origin who say the region is their ancestral homeland. It has been at the center of two wars – the latest in 2020 – since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It was not clear whether Baku’s actions would lead to a large-scale conflict extending to neighboring Armenia or whether they would lead to a limited military operation. But there have already been signs of political fallout in Yerevan, where Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has spoken of calls for a coup against him.
The fighting could change the geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus region, which is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines, and where Russia – preoccupied with its war in Ukraine – seeks to maintain its influence in the face of greater interest from Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan.
Loud and frequent shelling could be heard from social media footage filmed in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, called Khankendi in Azerbaijan, on Tuesday.
Human rights investigator for Karabakh separatists, Gegam Stepanyan, said that two civilians were killed and 11 people were injured as a result of strikes launched by the Azerbaijani army. Reuters could not immediately verify his assertion.
In a statement announcing the operation, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense spoke of its intention to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces formations from our territory, (and) neutralize their military infrastructure.”
It said it was only targeting legitimate military targets using “high-precision weapons” and not civilians as part of what it called a campaign “to restore the constitutional order of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
She added that civilians are free to leave via humanitarian corridors, including a corridor to Armenia, whose Prime Minister, Pashinyan, said the offer appeared to be another attempt by Baku to force Armenians to leave Karabakh as part of what he called an “ethnic” campaign. “purge,” an accusation that Baku denies.
Ethnic Armenian forces in Karabakh said that Azerbaijani forces are trying to break through their defenses after heavy bombardment, but they are still holding on at the moment.
Armenia, which has been holding peace talks with Azerbaijan, including on issues related to Karabakh’s future, condemned what it called “all-out aggression” by Baku against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and accused Azerbaijan of bombing towns and villages.
“Motivated by a sense of impunity, Azerbaijan openly claimed responsibility for the aggression,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Reuters could not immediately verify either side’s battlefield assertions.
Call for help
Armenia, which says its armed forces are not in Karabakh and that the situation on its border with Azerbaijan is stable, called on members of the United Nations Security Council to help, and also called on Russian peacekeepers on the ground to intervene.
Russia, which brokered a fragile post-war ceasefire in 2020 that saw Azerbaijan regain large swaths of territory in and around Karabakh that it lost in a previous conflict in the 1990s, has called on all sides to stop fighting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russia is in contact with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and urged negotiations to resolve the conflict in Karabakh, adding that Moscow considers ensuring the safety of civilians the most important issue.
Armenia accused Moscow of being so distracted by its war in Ukraine that it cannot protect its security and accused Russian peacekeeping forces in Karabakh of failing to carry out their mission.
Speaking inside Karabakh with artillery thundering in the background, Ruben Vardanyan, a banker who was a senior official in Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian administration until February, appealed to Armenia to recognize Karabakh’s declared independence from Azerbaijan.
He also called on the international community to impose sanctions on Baku.
“A really dangerous situation has been revealed here,” Vardanyan said on Telegram. He added, “Azerbaijan began a large-scale military operation against 120,000 people, including 30,000 children, pregnant women, and the elderly.”
The Armenian government held a Security Council meeting to discuss the situation as people gathered in the government district of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to demand that the authorities take the necessary measures.
Baku announced its operation after complaining that six of its citizens were killed by landmines in two separate incidents, which it blamed on “illegal Armenian armed groups.” Armenia said these allegations were false.
The escalation occurred a day after much-needed food and medicine were delivered to Karabakh via two routes simultaneously, a move that appears could help defuse escalating tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Until the past few days, Baku imposed comprehensive restrictions on the Lachin corridor – the only road linking Armenia to Karabakh – and blocked aid on the grounds that the route is used for arms smuggling.
Yerevan said that Baku’s actions had caused a humanitarian disaster, which Azerbaijan denied, describing as illegal.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Azerbaijan’s diplomatic stance appeared to be paving the way for some kind of military action.
Reporting by Reuters Writing by Andrew Osborne Editing by
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