One Azerbaijani and three Armenian soldiers were killed near Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday and Friday in a further escalation of violence which both warring sides linked with the upcoming Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in Switzerland.
Karabakh’s Defense Army said two of its soldiers, Aghasi Grigorian and Ruben Aleksanian, died “in close combat” while repelling Azerbaijani commando attacks early on Friday. Military investigators said the third serviceman, Lieutenant Gor Ohanian, fatally wounded himself after firing a rocket-propelled grenade late on Thursday.
Citing information obtained by its reconnaissance units, the Armenian-backed army claimed to have killed at least five Azerbaijani soldiers in the overnight firefights.
A separate statement by Armenia’s Defense Ministry said that Azerbaijani special forces attacked Karabakh Armenian positions at six different sections of “the line of contact” north and east of Karabakh. It said that “these actions will not remain without consequences.”
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry insisted that only one its servicemen, identified as Taleh Kerimov, has been killed in action since Thursday. It reported three Azerbaijani combat casualties in previous days.
A ministry statement cited by Azerbaijani news agencies said that the Armenians themselves launched incursions along the Karabakh frontline and that the Azerbaijani army will take “even tougher measures” against them. “The Armenian side will suffer casualties until it realizes that it must leave our lands,” said the statement.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was quick to accuse Baku resorting to an “unprecedented escalation of the situation” in the conflict zone ahead of Saturday’s meeting in Switzerland’s capital Bern of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.
“On the eve of every high-level [Armenian-Azerbaijani] meeting, a rise in tensions in the conflict zone as a result of Azerbaijani provocations has become the norm,” Nalbandian said in comments to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Baku is under the illusion that it can negotiate at the gunpoint.”
Nalbandian added that the latest outbreak of deadly fighting underscores the need Azerbaijan to accept concrete safeguards against ceasefire violations that have long been sought by the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. “We expect that the co-chair countries will take practical steps in this direction,” he said.
The mediating powers specifically want the warring sides to withdraw their snipers from the frontlines and work out a mechanism for international investigations of armed incidents. These confidence-building measures have been backed by Yerevan side but rejected by Baku until now.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry claimed, meanwhile, that it is the Armenian side that is heightening tension ahead of the Bern summit with attempted incursions and other “provocative actions.” The APA news agency quoted a ministry spokesman as saying that this “deliberate escalation of the situation” is aimed at torpedoing the Karabakh peace process and cementing the status quo in the conflict.
Later on Friday, President Serzh Sarkisian held a meeting at the Defense Ministry in Yerevan with the Armenian army top brass, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and other senior government officials. Sarkisian’s office said they discussed a wide range of issues related to defense and security. Those included “ways and methods of conducting possible hostilities” and a new five-year plan to strengthen the Armenian armed forces.
A statement by the presidential press office made no mention of the latest deadly fighting in Karabakh.
The U.S., Russian and French mediators hope that Sarkisian and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev will agree to boost the ceasefire regime and revive the protracted search for a compromise peace deal. James Warlick, the chief U.S. negotiator, tweeted on Friday that they expect the two leaders to have “substantive discussions” in Bern.