On the third day of clashes, and with nearly 100 dead, including civilians, Armenia and Azerbaijan are accused of having taken the fighting outside the Nagorno-Kharabakh region, the ethnic Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijani borders. In a dangerous new intensification of the conflict in the Caucasus, Yerevan says that a Turkish F-16 shot down one of its fighters within Armenian airspace.
According to the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the pilot of his fighter, a Russian-made SU-25, was killed after being hit by the Turks – Turkey, which supports Baku, denied. Azerbaijan has repeatedly stated that its Air Force does not have F-16 fighters (unlike the Turkish fighter).
Also on Monday, Ankara had denied an Armenian official who guaranteed that the Turks sent four thousand fighters from Northeast Syria to help the ally, militias that were already participating in the fighting that broke out on Sunday. According to three fighters in Syria heard by the daily The Guardian, several rebels have signed up in recent weeks to work with a Turkish private security firm in Azerbaijan, where they hope to take care of military and oil and gas installations.
Nagorno-Kharabakh’s president, Arayik Harutyunyan, had also accused Turkey of arming “mercenaries” and sending fighters for the fighting. If the Turkish presence in the area is confirmed, this would be the third war scenario where Turkey finds itself – and the third stage of the regional power struggle in which it became involved with Russia – after Syria and Libya.
After a phone call with President Ilham Aliyev, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to “support the Azerbaijani brothers by all means”. Russia, which has a military alliance with Armenia and a base there, sells sophisticated weapons to both Yerevan and Baku.
Harutyunyan also suggested that “the war has already crossed the boundaries of the conflict between Kharabakh and Azerbaijan …”, which now appears to be undeniable. The Yerevan government says a civilian was killed in Vartemis, after Azerbaijani forces attacked “civic-military infrastructures” in this city more than 150 km away – it will be the first death on Armenian soil. A civilian bus was also set on fire by a drone in the same city.
The Baku Ministry of Defense accuses Armenia of bombing the Dashkasan region, north of the disputed enclave.
According to Al-Jazeera, at least 26 more separatist fighters were killed in Tuesday’s clashes, bringing the number of military casualties in the territory under the control of Armenian ethnic forces to at least 84. Among civilians there are already 12 dead – nine in Azerbaijan, three in Armenia.
“We haven’t seen anything like this since the ceasefire to war in the 1990s,” Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst at think tank International Crisis Group, stressing that “the fighting is taking place in all sections of the front line”. Harutyunyan, quoted by the same agency, describes a “life or death war”.
Emergency session at the UN
After several calls for an end to hostilities and talks between members of the so-called Minsk Group, which mediates the conflict but has been unable to launch any effort for lasting peace for more than ten years, the United Nations Security Council has scored an emergency session to discuss the matter behind closed doors this Tuesday night.
The two former Soviet republics have fought a war for the sovereignty of Nagorno-Kharabakh since the late 1980s – the Soviets have given control over the Armenian-majority region to the Azerbaijani authorities. After several requests by the Armenians of the enclave to be transferred to the Armenian administration, the regional parliament voted to make the region part of Armenia in 1988, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was approaching.
What started out as ethnic clashes between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian-majority Armenia turned into a total war when the two countries declared independence from Moscow. When the Russian-mediated ceasefire was declared in 1994, 30,000 people were killed. One million people were also displaced amid reports of massacres and ethnic cleansing attributed to both parties.