Fighting erupted Sunday between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics that have clashed over control of a disputed territory for three decades, raising fear of a new full-blown war in the South Caucasus.
Armenia declared martial law and military mobilization after accusing Azerbaijan of launching a missile and artillery attack on the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for triggering the fighting, calling it an act of aggression. Both sides reported civilian deaths and injuries, without providing details.
Hostilities over the volatile province, a mountainous region that is inside Azerbaijan but run by ethnic Armenians, have flared in recent months, with skirmishes in July killing at least 16 people. A six-year war in the 1990s claimed some 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is controlled by pro-Armenian rebels
Since a 1994 cease-fire, Nagorno-Karabakh—which is about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware—remains heavily militarized. The latest escalation in the long-running conflict risks drawing in regional powers Russia and Turkey and leading to large civilian casualties.
Ankara has thrown its weight behind Azerbaijan, raising concerns that the standoff in the disputed province could evolve into another proxy fight between Turkey and Russia, which are on opposite sides of military conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Azerbaijan has regularly accused Moscow of favoring the Armenian side but Russia’s foreign ministry has pledged that Moscow would remain neutral and limit its interventions to the role of mediator.
On Sunday, Armenia said it shot down two helicopters and three drones and destroyed three tanks, a claim denied by Azerbaijan.
“We stay strong next to our army to protect our motherland from Azeri invasion,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote on Twitter.
Azerbaijan said it had launched a successful counteroffensive.
“Azerbaijan gave the enemy the response it deserved and the enemy was not able to advance even one centimeter,” Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said in a statement.
Artak Beglaryan, a human-rights official in Nagorno-Karabakh, tweeted that a woman and child were killed in attacks by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said there were reports of dead and wounded among civilians and military personnel. It said that extensive damage had been inflicted on many homes and civilian infrastructure.
The fighting Sunday prompted a flurry of diplomatic efforts to prevent a dangerous intensification of the decades-old conflict.
Moscow called on both sides to reach an immediate cease-fire.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed “serious concern” over the clashes in a phone call with Armenia’s Mr. Pashinyan on Sunday and called for all the necessary efforts to prevent further escalation, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, spoke by phone to the Armenian, Azeri and Turkish foreign ministers in an attempt to defuse the situation, the Foreign Ministry said.
The European Union called for a cessation of hostilities and de-escalation. Pope Francis told crowds on Saint Peter’s Square he was praying for peace and appealed to both countries to resolve their differences through negotiations.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which has been mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan and is co-chaired by the U.S., France and Russia, called on both sides to immediately restart dialogue.
“There is no alternative to a peaceful negotiated solution of the conflict,” the group said in a statement.
Turkey, which closed its border with Armenia in the early 1990s in solidarity with Azerbaijan, vowed to stand by Baku.
“Armenia proved once more that it is the greatest threat to peace and tranquility in the region,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement on Sunday. “As always, the Turkish nation stands with its Azerbaijani brothers with all its means.”
Turkey regards the Azeri people as next of kin, part of a Turkic brotherhood stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia. Following the July skirmishes between Baku and Yerevan, Turkey organized two weeks of land and aerial military drills in Azerbaijan.
“As Atatürk said, the joy of Azerbaijan is our joy, the sorrow of Azerbaijan is our sorrow,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said last month after monitoring the joint drill. “In fact, it is the natural outcome of the fact that we are one nation.”
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