Citing the Karabakh Armenian military, Armenia’s Defense Ministry said the fighting occurred in the northeast of Karabakh overnight. It said an Azerbaijani sabotage unit attacked Karabakh Armenian positions there, killing four and wounding as many soldiers before retreating into Azerbaijani-controlled territory.
“As a result of measures taken by the Armenian side, the enemy’s advance was stopped,” the ministry said in a statement. “The enemy retreated, leaving a killed soldier and weapons on the battlefield.”
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry did not immediately comment on the incident. The Azerbaijani APA news agency confirmed and identified the Azerbaijani casualty on Saturday. “The martyr’s body remains in an Armenian-controlled section of the line of contact,” it said.
The area bordering Karabakh’s northern Martakert district was already the scene of the most serious firefight in years that was reported from the main Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline, lying north and east of the disputed territory, in March 2008.
The latest incident came just over a day after the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents held yet another meeting in Saint-Petersburg, Russia in an attempt to make further progress towards a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh dispute proposed by the U.S, Russian and French mediators. Official Yerevan was quick to accuse Baku of deliberately instigating it.
Both President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian described the deadly fighting as an Azerbaijani “provocation” directly connected with the Saint-Petersburg talks, which the Kremlin said were productive. “This inhuman act is all the more unacceptable as it took place just hours after the trilateral meeting initiated by the Russian president,” Sarkisian told reporters in Saint-Petersburg. He said the incident was also an affront to the three mediating powers and urged them not to let it go “unpunished.”
The Armenian president also made clear that the firefight will have no impact on Yerevan’s position in the peace talks. “We are determined to and, I think, we will achieve [international] recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,” he said in televised remarks. “This is our aim and I see no need to rethink it.”
“Having barely left the negotiation room, the Azerbaijani leadership organized a sabotage action in Nagorno-Karabakh’s Martakert district on the night from June 18-19,” Nalbandian said, for his part.
“Evidently, it was a pre-planned and programmed operation,” Nalbandian charged in a written statement. “It once again shows the real face of Baku, which is doing everything to kill the negotiating process.”
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry rejected the accusation later in the day. A ministry spokesman, Elkhan Polukhov, told the Trend news agency that the deadly skirmish resulted from the “continuing occupation of Azerbaijani lands.” “Incidentally, this fact once again shows that the Armenian-Azerbaijani Karabakh conflict is not a frozen one, as the Armenian side would like to think,” Polukhov said.
Although a Russian-mediated truce, which stopped the 1991-1994 Karabakh war, has largely held, ceasefire violations around Karabakh and along Azerbaijan’s long border with Armenia proper are a regular occurrence costing dozens of lives each year. Each conflicting party blames the other for such incidents.
Deadly exchanges of automatic gunfire there were also reported ahead of the latest Armenian-Azerbaijani summit hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. One Armenian and one Azerbaijani soldiers were shot dead near Karabakh on Wednesday. It is not clear if they died in the same section of the frontline.
President Ilham Aliyev and other Azerbaijani leaders regularly threaten to win back Karabakh and Azerbaijani districts surrounding it by force. Aliyev warned earlier this month that Baku will pull out of its long-running peace talks with the Armenians if they yield no breakthrough soon.
Medvedev’s office said late Thursday that Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, narrowed their differences on the mediators “basic principles” of settling the conflict at Saint-Petersburg. Nalbandian also hinted at progress in the talks when he spoke to journalists in the Russian city.
Polukhov commented more equivocally on the results of the Aliyev-Sarkisian talks on Friday. “We would like the Armenian side to realize the necessity of turning the quantity of meetings on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement into quality,” he told Trend.
Aliyev reportedly flew back to Baku early Friday shortly after his meeting with Sarkisian and Medvedev. Alieyv’s press service had announced earlier that the Azerbaijani leader will visit Saint-Petersburg to participate in an annual international economic conference held there.
Medvedev and Sarkisian jointly attended the opening session of the Kremlin-sponsored forum on Friday. They also attended an Armenia-related event at Saint Petersburg State University and held a brief meeting there the next day. Sarkisian commented on the Karabakh fighting afterwards.