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Azerbaijan launches military operation in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh

Explosions reported throughout Stepanakert raise concerns that Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the brink of another war
Artillery strikes on a hilltop outside Stepanakert, the capital of the Armenian-populated separatist region within Azerbaijani borders, 19 September 2023
Artillery strikes on a hilltop outside Stepanakert, the capital of the Armenian-populated separatist region within Azerbaijani borders, 19 September 2023. Azerbaijanis call the city Khankendi (AFP)
By MEE staff in New York City

Azerbaijan launched a military operation in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on Tuesday, risking a return to the bloody 2020 war between the neighbours.

On Tuesday, explosions and heavy shelling were reported in Stepanakert, the regional capital, which Azerbaijanis call Khankendi. Armenian separatists say 25 people have been killed since the operation, including two civilians. Middle East Eye could not independently verify the claim.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but the region, which is majority ethnic Armenian, has been run by a breakaway Armenian authority. Tensions in the region have been brewing for months with Armenia and Azerbaijan trading accusations of cross-border attacks.

Azerbaijan has imposed a de facto blockade on the Lanchin corridor, the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the only artery for food and medical deliveries to the impoverished region.

Azerbaijan on Tuesday said it launched an anti-terrorism campaign and that “high-precision weapons are being used to disable legitimate military targets and military infrastructure” hours after Azerbaijan said four police officers and two civilians were killed in mine blasts in Nagorno-Karabakh, with authorities blaming separatists. 

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The deaths at dawn came after Armenian separatists said they had reached an agreement with Azerbaijani authorities to resume aid deliveries to Karabakh.

Baku's security services said two civilians had died in the district of Khojavend and four police officers were killed in another mine explosion en route to the site.

Azerbaijan said the incident took place "in the zone of temporary deployment of the Russian peacekeeping contingent," despatched by Moscow in 2020 as part of a ceasefire deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Armenia's foreign ministry condemned Azerbaijani "aggression". Armenia has warned for months that Azerbaijan was massing troops on the countries' shared border and near Nagorno-Karabakh.

"On 19 September, Azerbaijan unleashed another large-scale aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, aiming to complete its policy of ethnic cleansing," the foreign ministry said.

Fighting in the region first broke out in 1988 between Armenian seperatists and Azerbaijani troops during the collapse of the Soviet Union. After a 1994 truce the region was left under effect Armenian control. Since then Baku has been able to upgrade its military arsenal using energy revenue to purchase Turkish drones and military hardware from Israel.

In 2020 Azerbaijan launched a military operation with Turkish backing and recaptured most of the territory.

Tuesday’s outbreak of fighting could further upend the balance of power in the energy-rich Caucasus.

Armenian leader denounces calls for coup

Russia, the region’s historic power, dispatched peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Although it portrays itself as a close ally of Armenia, it also has ties to Azerbaijan. Moscow’s role in the region has waned as it focuses on the war in Ukraine.

Anti-Russia sentiment in Armenia has been growing with Moscow unable, or unwilling, to force an opening of the Lachin corridor. Earlier this month the US conducted military exercises with Armenia.

Protesters gathered outside government offices in Armenia’s capital Yerevan hours after Azerbaijan launched its military operation and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan denounced calls for a coup against him.

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Azerbaijan launched its military operation as world leaders gathered in New York City for the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Pashinyan held phone calls with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron, his spokesperson said on Tuesday. Paris has called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting to address the fighting.

"The United States is deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh," said Blinken.

He called for the immediate opening of two supply routes to allow the passage of "desperately needed humanitarian supplies" to the Armenian-populated region and warned leaders against any provocation.

A senior US official added that Blinken was holding talks with Turkey, Baku's main ally, on the fighting.

Pashinyan also called on Russia and the UN Security Council to take action. Moscow said it was concerned over the fighting in the breakaway region.

Azerbaijan has said it will protect ethnic-Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, but demands that all Armenian-backed forces withdraw.

Armenian-backed separatists in the breakaway region released a statement on Tuesday calling for Azerbaijan to start negotiations. 

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