Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry officially confirmed on Monday that at least five Azerbaijani soldiers were killed by Armenian forces over the weekend in what was the worst fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in almost a year.
The ministry identified all of them and also effectively acknowledged that they died in the no-man’s land on the Karabakh “line of contact.”
According to Azerbaijani media reports, one of those servicemen, Aqsin Abdullayev, had the military rank of major. Karabakh’s Armenian-backed Defense Army claimed earlier that Abdullayev was the chief of reconnaissance of an Azerbaijani army brigade.
The Defense Army claimed to have repelled Azerbaijani attacks at two sections of the frontline early on Saturday. It said Azerbaijani commando units used demining equipment to try to seize its positions there but were pushed back, suffering significant casualties in the process. No Karabakh Armenian soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting, it said.
The Azerbaijani military claimed, however, that it was the Armenians who attempted to capture more “beneficial positions.” It admitted combat deaths in within its ranks but did not specify their number until Monday morning.
The Karabakh Armenian army dismissed the Azerbaijani version of events, saying the fact that the bodies of the Azerbaijani soldiers were left lying in the no-man’s land only proves that they had gone on the offensive. It also released night-vision footage purportedly showing Azerbaijani troops coming under precise artillery fire while trying unsuccessfully to cross the frontline.
U.S., Russian and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group expressed concern at the escalation, the worst since the April 2016 hostilities in and around Karabakh, but did not blame either party for it. “The Co-chairs remind the Parties of their commitments to refrain from the use of force,” they said in a statement released on Sunday.
The statement also said: “The Co-chairs call upon the Parties to keep heavy military equipment, which had been moved earlier close to the [Line of Contact,] in its present positions and to allow recovery of the dead, as it was agreed upon yesterday under mediation of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office.”
The Defense Ministry in Baku said that representatives of the OSCE as well as the International Red Committee of the Red Cross were due to retrieve the bodies of its soldiers and hand them over to the Azerbaijani side on Sunday. It claimed that the Armenians scuttled the handover with “new and unacceptable” conditions set at the last minute.
The Karabakh Armenian army was quick to deny that, saying that the bodies were not recovered because the Azerbaijani military breached relevant “agreements reached beforehand during negotiations.” It did not elaborate.
All five bodies were handed over to the Azerbaijani side later on Monday.