By Lada Yevgrashina and Hasmik Mkrtchyan, Reuters
Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other on Wednesday of triggering an exchange of gunfire in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh that killed up to 16 people, one of the biggest such clashes in several years.
Both sides gave different accounts of the incident in the enclave, seized by pro-Armenian forces from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s in which an estimated 35,000 people were killed. Muslim Azerbaijan said 12 Armenian fighters and 4 Azeri soldiers were killed. Christian Armenia said 8 Azeri soldiers died and 2 Armenian soldiers were injured.
A death toll of 16 would mark the worst clash in recent years between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a big oil producer and home to pipelines taking Caspian Sea energy to world markets.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian said Azerbaijan had launched the attack to take advantage of Armenia's tense political standoff after protests against last month's election. "It is possible in Azerbaijan they thought the situation in Armenia had distracted the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh," said Kocharian, who was born in the rebel region.
The West and Russia urged both parties to show restraint. "We do not want a war in the region," a U.S. diplomat said in Baku. "We are following the situation very closely and we urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid any violence."
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza, who was in Baku on Tuesday, was due in Yerevan later this week to facilitate talks between the government and opposition.
Russia also expressed concern. "The most important thing at the moment is to avoid letting this grow into massive military action in the (region)," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Azerbaijan said Armenia was trying to distract attention from protests in Yerevan by focusing on an external enemy. "The Armenian side resorted to provocations on the frontline in a bid to switch the attention of the international community and its own citizens from internal tensions to an external enemy," said an Azeri Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The breakaway region's foreign ministry appealed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to intervene and conduct crisis-monitoring in the conflict zone.
Azeri President Ilham Aliev said this week his country was ready to take back Nagorno-Karabakh by force if need be, and was buying military equipment and arms in preparation. He said Kosovo's newly declared independence had emboldened Armenian separatists in the mountainous enclave.
Armenia's Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, a native of Nagorno-Karabakh who was elected president last month in a disputed election, confirmed there had been an incident between Azeri and Armenian soldiers but did not give a casualty figure.
A Western diplomat in Armenia said the latest reports of shooting had to be treated seriously. "This does sound in the terms it's been reported as slightly more than the usual skirmish, but in the current climate it certainly could have been exaggerated," he said. "This is a situation we have to watch carefully."
(Photolur photo: Karabakh Armenian soldiers march in Stepanakert.)