Diplomacy Picks Up Pace As Heavy Fighting Rages Around Nagorno-Karabakh

BAKU/YEREVAN -- Heavy fighting continued around the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on October 7 as international diplomacy to reach a cease-fire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces intensified.

Military officials in Yerevan said Armenia-backed separatists repelled what they called a large-scale Azerbaijani attack on their positions at the southernmost section of the Nagorno-Karabakh "line of contact."

The area, which borders Iran, has been the epicenter of hostilities in recent days.

Since fighting erupted on September 27, the two sides have reported at least 300 deaths, including dozens of civilians. Azerbaijan has not released military casualties.

The actual toll is believed to be much higher as both sides claim to have inflicted heavy military casualties. Each side has accused the other of targeting civilians.

Shushan Stepanian, a spokeswoman for Armenia’s Defense Ministry, said on October 7 that separatist forces killed scores of Azerbaijani soldiers and destroyed two dozen tanks and other armored vehicles, while the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said on the same day that its military has destroyed 250 Armenian tanks since the beginning of hostilities.

Neither claim could be independently confirmed. Both sides regularly exaggerate military successes against their opponent.

An RFE/RL Armenian Service crew working in Stepanakert, the breakaway region's largest city, reported another day of shelling on the urban area by Azerbaijani forces on October 7.

Stepanakert's deputy mayor, Suren Tamrazian, said that around half of the town’s population of 50,000 had fled to safer rural areas or Armenia.

The hostilities have increased concern that a wider conflict could drag in regional power Turkey, which is Azerbaijan's closest ally, and Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview with state-run television on October 7, called for an urgent cease-fire.

"Of course, this is a huge tragedy. People are dying. There are heavy losses on both sides," Putin said.

A cease-fire must be agreed "as quickly as possible," even if a resolution to the long-standing conflict takes much longer, Putin added.

Separately, Putin spoke with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev about the conflict over the phone, the Kremlin said on October 7.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two leaders agreed to continue their dialogue on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, without giving details.

It was the first time Putin and Aliyev have spoken since fighting erupted.

Aliyev told Russian state television that his country would return to talks with Armenia after the acute phase of military conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region ends.

Aliyev said that Turkey had the right to participate in mediation, Russian news agency TASS reported. Turkey brushed off calls for a cease-fire and gave Azerbaijan its full backing.

Azerbaijan has demanded that Armenian forces withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories as a condition for a cease-fire. Those conditions would be nearly impossible for Armenia to accept.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Russian, French, and U.S. representatives would also meet in Moscow on October 12 to find a way to get the warring sides to negotiate a cease-fire.

"We want everyone to understand that it's in their interest to immediately stop hostilities without conditions and that we start a negotiation," he told the French parliament's foreign affairs committee on October 7.

Armenian and Azeri representatives are not expected to meet.

Russia, France, and the United States co-chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) so-called Minsk Group, which has spearheaded on-and-off peace efforts over Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s. The three powers have repeatedly called for an immediate cease-fire.

Azerbaijan said its foreign minister, Ceyhun Bayramov, would visit Geneva on October 8 to meet the leaders of the OSCE's Minsk Group.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian would visit Moscow on October 12 but gave no details.

The president of Iran, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, said it had told both sides "clearly and precisely" that they must avoid turning their conflict into a regional war.

"We should be terribly careful this conflict does not turn into a regional war, because definitely nobody would profit from that," Hassan Rohani told state television on October 7.

Rohani, who spoke to Aliyev on October 6, said he had offered that Tehran could act as a mediator.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on October 6 in an interview with AFP that Turkey's "full support" had motivated Azerbaijan to reignite the fighting.

"While it is true that the leadership of Azerbaijan has been actively promoting bellicose rhetoric for the last 15 years, now the decision to unleash a war was motivated by Turkey's full support," Pashinian said.

In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also highlighted the risk of regional conflict. "The only solution is to go back to the negotiation table," he told the European Parliament on October 7. "But this negotiation table has been open for the last 30 years without any kind of advance," Borrell cautioned, adding, "War is not an alternative."

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over the mountainous region since the waning years of the Soviet Union. They fought a war that ended in 1994 with an uneasy cease-fire and an estimated 30,000 killed.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, but it is controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists with close ties to Yerevan. Armenian forces also hold control over seven regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, Interfax, TASS, and Reuters