A team of U.S., Russian and French negotiators on Wednesday urged the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to observe the ceasefire following fresh skirmishes that reportedly left two Azerbaijani civilians dead.
“The Minsk Group Co-Chairs urgently call upon the sides to cease military action,” the mediators said in a joint statement. “Violence only begets further violence and accomplishes nothing.”
“The only responsible and humane way to resolve this long-standing conflict is for the sides to return to the negotiation table in good faith,” they added.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said a 50-year-old woman and her 2-year-old granddaughter were killed on Tuesday evening by Armenian shelling of their village of Alkhanli just southeast of Karabakh. Another local resident, also a woman, was seriously wounded, the ministry said, adding that the Azerbaijani side fired back at Armenian forces stationed across the nearby section of “the line of contact.”
Karabakh’s Armenian-backed Defense Army came up with a different version of events, saying that Azerbaijani forces fired five rockets towards one of its command points from an artillery position located within Alkhanli.It said its frontline troops retaliated by targeting that position.
In a separate statement, the Defense Army accused the Azerbaijani military of using Alkhanli residents as a “human shield.” It also released a short video that purportedly shows two Azerbaijan rockets landing near Karabakh Armenian trenches overlooking the Azerbaijani village. It said it was the first time that the Azerbaijanis used Turkish-made TR-107 multiple-launch rocket systems since the April 2016 hostilities in and around Karabakh.
“If the enemy really suffered casualties among civilians, then we have to express regret,” said the Karabakh army commander, Lieutenant-General Levon Mnatsakanian. “At the same time I want to make clear that the armed forces of Artsakh (Karabakh) … will continue to fully exercise their right to defend themselves and, if need be, respond to the enemy’s offensive actions in a targeted and disproportionate manner.”
Mnatsakanian also warned Baku against resorting to “further military adventures,” saying that they would have “unpredictable consequences.”
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry claimed on Wednesday, however, that the Armenians are deliberately targeting Azerbaijani civilians living near the Karabakh frontlines. It said the deaths of the two villagers “confirmed the terrorist nature” of Armenia. The ministry also said the American, French and Russian mediators must now demand “the immediate withdrawal of Armenia’s armed forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and a change of the status quo.”
Official Yerevan blamed the Azerbaijani side for the deadly incident. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian discussed it in phone conversations with the Minsk Group co-chairs. Nalbandian’s press office said he briefed them on “the situation after the Azerbaijani provocation.”
The Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Tigran Balayan, said that in order to prevent further bloodshed Baku should comply with confidence-building agreements that were reached by Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s presidents last year.
Presidents Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev specifically agreed to allow the OSCE to deploy more field observers in the conflict zone and investigate truce violations occurring there. The Azerbaijani leadership has since been reluctant to implement these safeguards, saying that they would cement the status quo in the absence of progress in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks.
The latest escalation comes ahead of a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers expected later this month. The Minsk Group co-chairs hope that they will help to prepare for a fresh Armenian-Azerbaijani summit. The mediating troika said after visiting Baku, Yerevan and Stepanakert last month that Aliyev and Sarkisian “expressed their intention to resume political dialogue in an attempt to find a compromise solution for the most controversial issues of the settlement.”
The Interfax news agency quoted the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hikmet Hajiyev, as saying later in the day that Baku does not plan to cancel the ministerial meeting that could take place as early as next week. “We want substantive negotiations,” he said.