Two Azerbaijani soldiers have reportedly been killed in recent days in skirmishes with Armenian forces around Nagorno-Karabakh that appear to be continuing unabated despite international efforts to strengthen the ceasefire regime there.
The U.S., Russian and French mediators seeking to broker a peaceful solution to the Karabakh dispute on Thursday strongly condemned “the senseless cycle of killings and retaliations along the front lines.” In a joint statement issued in Vienna, they said they will again travel to the conflict zone soon to work out with the conflicting parties concrete mechanisms for investigating truce violations.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that one of its soldiers, the 24 year-old Samir Agayev, was shot dead the previous day at a section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” southeast of Karabakh.
Azerbaijani news agencies reported on Thursday that the ministry has also confirmed the death of another soldier, identified as Elnur Mammadov. His relatives were quoted by ANS Press as saying that the 19-year-old was shot in the head by an Armenian sniper at another frontline section on Monday. They complained that the Azerbaijani military was initially reluctant to blame the death on enemy fire and thus declare Mammadov a “martyr.”
Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian Defense Army promptly denied any responsibility for the shootings, claiming that both soldiers were apparently killed by their comrades. The army spokesman, Senor Hasratian, also accused the Azerbaijani side of intensifying ceasefire violations along the “line of contact” this week. Azerbaijani troops have fired a total of about 1,300 bullets at Karabakh Armenian positions since Sunday, Hasratian said in a statement.
Still, Armenia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that the Armenian side has been actively retaliating against Azerbaijani army detachments opening fire on its frontline positions. “As a rule, we punish them strictly, and reporting their casualties is not our business,” ministry spokesman Davit Karapetian told News.am.
“Various evaluations show that Azerbaijan’s provocations end in greater Azerbaijani casualties,” Karapetian said. “Unfortunately, they are not drawing lessons yet.”
The Karabakh Armenian forces have suffered at least two combat deaths this month. They both reportedly occurred after the March 5 meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents that was hosted by their Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in Sochi. In a joint statement, the two leaders pledged to bolster the ceasefire and let OSCE officials investigate its violations. Each side has since accused the other of breaching the agreement.
The U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group urged both sides to respect the truce as they wrapped up another tour of the conflict zone last week. They also renewed their longstanding calls for the mutual withdrawal of snipers from frontline positions.
Yerevan and the Karabakh Armenians say they support sniper withdrawal, something which was reaffirmed by Hasratian. Azerbaijan has until now opposed the idea.
The Armenian Defense Ministry also warned Baku against acting on its threats to shoot down civilian aircraft that will fly to Karabakh after the forthcoming reopening of the disputed territory’s sole airport. “Any adventure by the enemy would cause it great losses,” said Karapetian.
The Azerbaijani threats have been denounced by the United States and the other mediating powers. “Those kinds of threats are completely unacceptable, and they are not in keeping with the commitments that Azerbaijan has made with regard to a peaceful resolution of this conflict,” Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, said on Wednesday.
Washington’s ambassador in Baku, Matthew Bryza, made a similar statement late last week. In an interview with RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, Bryza also said that the Sochi agreement commits the parties to a “peaceful, negotiated settlement of the conflict.”