By Nailia Bagirova and Hasmik Mkrtchyan
A new wave of fighting broke out in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on Saturday, killing at least a dozen servicemen and drawing international calls for an immediate ceasefire to stop violence spreading in the South Caucasus.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenians, has run its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia since a separatist war ended in 1994.
The Azeri defence ministry said on Saturday the army had “liberated strategic heights and settlements” in the region.
“Six Armenian tanks were destroyed (and) more than 100 Armenian servicemen were killed and injured,” it said in a statement, saying 12 Azeri servicemen had also been killed.
Armenia’s government denied the Azeri report on the number of casualties but declined to disclose Saturday’s toll of deaths and injuries.
Earlier on Saturday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s military said Armenian anti-aircraft forces downed an Azeri helicopter. Baku admitted that its Mi-24 helicopter was shot down.
Both sides also reported civilian casualties and accused each other of violating the ceasefire, a sign that the two-decade-old conflict which has left some 30,000 people dead is far from a peaceful resolution. Similar violence was reported last month.
The violence has forced Russia, a key mediator in the conflict, to step up diplomatic efforts to quench it.
President Vladimir Putin urged the warring sides to immediately observe the 1994 ceasefire and “to exercise restraint so as to avert new human casualties,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu have talked by phone with their Armenian and Azeri counterparts.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, meanwhile, called on them “to immediately stop fighting and to fully respect the ceasefire.”
Azerbaijan frequently threatens to take Nagorno-Karabakh region back by force. Clashes around the region have fuelled worries of a widening conflict breaking out in the region, which is crossed by oil and natural gas pipelines.
War erupted over Nagorno-Karabakh in dying years of the Soviet Union, and killed about 30,000 people. A ceasefire was called in 1994 but violence has sporadically broken out since.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for “an ultimate resolution” of the conflict between during talks with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev at the State Department.