YEREVAN/BAKU – Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other on Monday of attacking civilian areas on the ninth day of the deadliest fighting in the South Caucasus region for more than 25 years.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg added his voice to calls for an immediate end to the clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave that belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but is populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.
But prospects for a ceasefire appeared remote after the fighting intensified over the weekend and following uncompromising comments by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.
In an address to the nation on Sunday, Aliyev said Azeri forces were advancing and retaking lands that had been in the hands of ethnic Armenians since a war in the 1990s.
He said Armenia must set a timetable for withdrawing from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azeri territories, and that Azerbaijan would not cease military action until that happened.
“Azerbaijan has one condition, and that is the liberation of its territories,” he said.
Aliyev said in an interview with Turkish state broadcaster TRT Haber on Monday that Ankara must be involved in any moves to end the conflict.
Armenian Defence Ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said: “I don’t think that there is any risk for Yerevan (the Armenian capital), but anyway we are in war.”
The fighting has raised international concern about stability in the South Caucasus, where pipelines carry Azeri oil and gas to world markets, and about the possibility other regional powers being dragged in – Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey, and Armenia has a defence pact with Russia.
“There is no military solution,” Stoltenberg said during a visit to Turkey, calling for a ceasefire.
Standing beside him, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Azerbaijan was trying to take back its own lands and NATO should call for Armenian forces to withdraw.
DEATH TOLL MOUNTS
On Monday, Nagorno-Karabakh said Azeri forces carried out rocket strikes on its main administrative centre, Stepanakert, while Azerbaijan said Armenia fired missiles at several towns outside the breakaway region.
“The enemy is firing rockets at Stepanakert and Shushi. The Defence Army response will not be long in coming,” said Vahram Pogosyan, a spokesman for the Nagorno-Karabakh leader.
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said 21 more servicemen had been killed, bringing its total military death toll to 223 since fighting flared on Sept. 27.
Azerbaijan said Armenia had launched missile attacks at densely populated areas and civilian infrastructure in Azerbaijan, an accusation denied by Armenia.
The Azeri prosecutor’s office said 25 civilians and been killed and 127 wounded since fighting began. Azerbaijan has not provided military casualties.
“This is a new and dangerous phase in relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” said Azeri prosecutor-general Kamran Aliyev.
Dismissing Azerbaijan’s accusations of targeting civilians, Armenian Defence Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said: “Azeri official circles continue disseminating information that has nothing in common with the truth.”
The clashes are the worst since the 1990s, when some 30,000 people were killed, and are spreading beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave itself.
Ceasefire calls from Russia, France, the United States and the European Union have produced no result. Iran said on Monday it would discuss a plan to end the fighting with the warring sides and other countries in the region, but gave no details.
“The fighting has essentially put to bed the prospect of any near-term resolution to the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh,” said analysts Alexander Stronell and Yohann Michel of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin offered Armenia humanitarian aid, hoping to smooth relations strained by Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan. Armenia recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations last week.