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International concern is growing over rapidly escalating turmoil in the South Caucasus as fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to spiral, threatening to draw in regional powers and destabilize an area that serves as an important energy corridor for global markets.
|The Azerbaijan side announced on September 27 at the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist area, the Armenian army "lost 22 tanks, 15 Osa anti-aircraft missile systems, 8 artillery platforms and 18 unmanned aircraft ( UAV) ”. Photo: Pledge Times|
A simmering conflict on Russia's volatile southern border is threatening to escalate into an all-out war, with the potential of drawing in NATO ally Turkey.
Fighting continued for a second day in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, claimed by Armenians as well as by Azerbaijanis. Dozens of service members on both sides have been reported killed in a flare-up of violence that began Sunday morning.
The ethnic Armenian majority in the region fought a bloody war of secession from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union fell apart three decades ago. A tense cease-fire — but no lasting peace — has since kept tensions high in the Caucasus, an area where Russia, Turkey and Iran have historically competed.
International mediation is formally in the hands of a group co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. Russia, the dominant power in the region for 200 years, carries the most clout. It has a defense pact with Armenia and a military base in the landlocked country, but the Kremlin also maintains good relations with Azerbaijan, according to the npr.org.
|A howitzer fires munitions toward Armenian positions Monday. Violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted Sunday in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: npr|
Turkey's relations with Armenia are clouded by the Ottoman Empire's 1915 mass killing of Armenians, which many historians have described as genocide. Turks and Azeris share ethnic and linguistic kinship, and ties between neighbors Turkey and Armenia have been frozen because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
"Turkey continues to stand with the friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday, blaming Armenia for the renewed fighting.
The Armenian Foreign Affairs Ministry claims Azerbaijan is receiving "large-scale military-political support from Turkey" in the form of advisers and weapons, including drones. The ministry says the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh in Armenian, are fighting a "Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance."
Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas, has spent the past two decades building up its military.
There have been many flare-ups between the former Soviet republics, which sit near strategic oil and gas pipelines, and are split along religious and ethnic lines.
"This is a life and death war," Nagorno-Karabakh leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, said.
So where exactly is the fighting, who is involved, why has violence again returned to the region and can it be stopped?
Where is Nagorno-Karabakh? Is it its own country?
|The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been running its own affairs with support from Armenia.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)|
It is a mountainous, forested patch of land of about 4,400 square kilometres that sits inside Azerbaijan and is recognised under international law as part of that country.
Azerbaijani authorities were given control of the region under Soviet rule, but the the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 population are ethnic Armenians who have rejected Azeri rule.
That has lead to a series of clashes and moves from Nagorno-Karabakh to formally become part of Armenia.
That's yet to happen, but the region has been running its own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan's troops were pushed out in a war in the 1990s.
Armenian forces also occupy large swathes of territory adjacent to the region.
Nagorno-Karabakh survives almost entirely on budget support from Armenia and donations from the worldwide Armenian diaspora.
How many people have been killed?
Since fighting began on the weekend, the two sides have pounded each other with rockets and artillery in the fiercest round of conflict in more than a quarter of a century.
Azerbaijani military officials said more than 550 Armenian troops have been "destroyed [including those wounded]", but that claim has been denied by Armenia.
Azerbaijani authorities said nine civilians were killed and 32 wounded on their side.
According to the Armenian Defence Ministry, about 200 troops have been wounded, but many were only slightly hurt and have returned to the frontline.
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh have reported 58 of their soldiers have been killed, along with two civilians — a woman and her grandchild, reported the abc.net.
At least 200 people were killed in a flare-up of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016.
What could end the fighting?
Several countries, including Russia and China, have called for a ceasefire but so far neither side has put their weapons down or indicated a willingness to meet for dialogue.
Russia potentially holds the key.
It has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base there, but also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan, and has no interest in the conflict spreading.
If its diplomacy succeeded, Moscow could earn kudos for ending the fighting at a time when it is under intense criticism on other fronts, including its backing of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Sunday, but it is not yet clear if he has attempted to talk to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev.
Iran neighbours both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has been calling for calm.
Meanwhile, the US, France and Russia are meant to be guarantors of the long-stalled peace process, under the auspices of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
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