By Gevorg Stamboltsian in Tavush
Relative calm appears to have returned to the westernmost section of the heavily militarized Armenian-Azerbaijani border after three weeks of reportedly fierce fighting that has claimed lives on both sides.
There was no shooting in the rugged area around a water reservoir straddling Armenia’s northern Tavush region and the Gazakh district in western Azerbaijan on Tuesday as the Armenian military claimed to have held its own in the confrontation which it blames on the opposite side.
The fighting broke out in mid-June, prompting urgent intervention from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and international mediators trying to broke a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Armenian side accused Azerbaijani forces of advancing into no-man’s land by the Joghaz reservoir and threatening to destroy a facility that pumps irrigation water to nearby Tavush villages.
Yerevan said its troops had to move their positions closer to the facility. However, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has denied this version of events, alleging that the Armenians themselves violated the decade-long ceasefire regime.
The troop movements were apparently accompanied by an intense exchange of automatic and sniper gunfire that put at risk the residents of the two villages located on either side of the artificial lake. Armenia’s Armed Forces have reported that two of their servicemen have been shot dead in the skirmishes.
The Azerbaijani military has also reported casualties. A Baku-based newspaper cited late last month unnamed military sources as putting their number at seven.
“If they speak of seven people, then the real the number must be a bit higher,” said Onik Gasparian, commander of the local Armenian army unit.
The Armenian army’s General Staff was keen to show that it has successfully coped with the tensions around Joghaz and keeps the situation under control. In a rare public relations effort, it organized a trip to the area for a large group of Yerevan journalists, allowing them to visit and even picture the Armenian positions.
“The Azerbaijani forces are positioned 500 to 1,500 meters deep into their territory, while our soldiers are right on the border,” said Major-General Kamo Kochunts, a senior staff official.
Major-General Levon Yeranosian, commander of the Third Army Corps stationed in Tavush, bluntly warned that his troops could cross into Azerbaijani territory in the event of another escalation. “If they try that again, they will get a tougher response and we will reach the outskirts of Gazakh,” he said.
Kochunts was more reserved but confirmed the warning. “We will have to do that if they force us,” he said.
The reporters were then taken several dozen kilometers away from the frontline to see further proof of the Armenian military might: some 30 battle tanks put on display at a rear base of the Third Corps. According to military officials, they were not used in the recent firefights but can be deployed in any section of the line of contact within hours.
The fighting around the Joghaz reservoir illustrated the shaky nature of the Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire, the tenth anniversary of which was marked in May. Although the truce has largely held, hundreds of soldiers from both sides have died in similar skirmishes. The most serious of them usually occur on the Karabakh frontline which has the heaviest troop concentration.
Azerbaijan regularly threatens to win back Karabakh by force if the OSCE-sponsored talks remain deadlocked.
Armenian leaders say the reason why Baku has not followed through on the threats is that it faces a formidable military force. As Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, the Armenian chief of staff who personally accompanied the journalists on the tour, put it: “If our army had been slightly weaker than the Azerbaijani army, the war would have resumed long ago.”