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Fragile truce holds in Karabakh after 4 days of deadly clashes

Mobile artillery units of the self-defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh hold a position outside the settlement of Hadrut, not far from the Iranian border, on April 5, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KAREN MINASYAN

Mobile artillery units of the self-defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh hold a position outside the settlement of Hadrut, not far from the Iranian border, on April 5, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KAREN MINASYAN

Azerbaijani and Armenian forces on Wednesday said they were largely observing a truce that halted four days of clashes which claimed scores of lives in the worst outbreak of violence in decades over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region.

“The ceasefire was largely observed overnight along the Karabakh frontline,” the Armenia-backed separatist defence ministry in Karabakh said in a statement.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said its forces were “strictly abiding by the ceasefire agreement” that was hammered out on Tuesday by the Azerbaijani and Armenian army chiefs during a meeting in Moscow.

The fragile truce comes after at least 75 people were reported killed as the festering dispute over the territory — which was captured from Azerbaijan by Armenian separatists in an early 1990s war — escalated dramatically on Friday, sparking international concern.

Azerbaijan’s army claimed to have snatched control of several strategic locations inside Armenian-controlled territory, effectively changing the frontline for the first time since an inconclusive truce ended the war in 1994.

“Azerbaijani troops are currently reinforcing the liberated territories,” Baku’s defence military said in its statement.

Yerevan, however, insists that the Azeri side has been ousted from any positions it might have snatched inside the disputed territory.

“Even if certain Armenian positions were at some point taken by Azeris, now they are all returned under Karabakh’s control,” Armenia’s defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan told AFP on Tuesday.

An AFP photographer in the village of Matagis in Karabakh, some 10 kilometres (six miles) from the frontline, confirmed that “the night was calm and without shooting.”

Baku said 31 of its soldiers and four civilians died in the bloodshed, while Karabakh’s separatist authorities reported the deaths of 35 military and five civilians during the fierce clashes that erupted on Friday night.

Both sides accused each other of starting the latest outbreak of violence and it has sparked concern of a wider conflict in the region that could drag in Russia and Turkey.

While ex-Soviet master Moscow has sold arms to both sides and treads a careful line between the two, it has a military alliance with, and base in, Armenia and far closer ties to Yerevan.

Turkey — which is locked in a feud with Moscow after Ankara downed a Russian warplane in Syria in November — has pledged its full support for traditional ally Azerbaijan.

Separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of mountainous Nagorny Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian region lying inside Azerbaijan, in an early 1990s war that claimed some 30,000 lives.

The sides have never signed a peace deal despite the 1994 ceasefire and sporadic violence on the line of contact regularly claims the lives of soldiers on both sides.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force.



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