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Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of new shelling as Russia vows assistance

At the Armenia Nagorno Karabakh border (Clay Gilliland/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of shelling residential areas, just a day after the sides agreed to avoid targeting civilian populations in and around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The fresh fighting came as Russia said it would provide “necessary” assistance to Yerevan if fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh reached Armenia’s territory.

Moscow was responding to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking to begin “urgent” consultations on security assistance.

The shelling reported from both sides on October 31 came hours after talks in Geneva between the two countries’ foreign ministers and international mediators that were aimed at helping to bring a halt in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh after three previous cease-fires failed.

The talks on October 30 fell short of another cease-fire, but Yerevan and Baku agreed to engage in an exchange of bodies on the battlefield, provide lists of detained prisoners of war within a week with the aim of eventual exchange, and communicate on issues “related to possible cease-fire verification mechanisms,” said a statement by the Minsk Group mediation co-chairs — Russia, France, and the United States.

Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the population, reject Azerbaijani rule. They have been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s troops were pushed out of the breakaway region in a war in the early 1990s.

The latest fighting began on September 27, escalating quickly to involve heavy artillery, rockets, and drones.

At least one thousand people have been killed in the fighting. Russia has estimated as many as 5,000 deaths on both sides.

Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said on October 31 that the central market in Stepanakert, the enclave’s largest city, had come under fire and that large parts of it had been burned.

Armenian Defense Ministry spokesperson Shushan Stepanian also said several civilians had been wounded in attacks on the strategic town of Shushi (known as Susa in Azeri), around 15 kilometers from Stepanakert.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied both accusations. It said that the regions of Tartar, Agdam, and Aghjabedi had come under artillery fire.

The ministry also said Gubadli, a town between the enclave and the Iranian border that was taken by Azeri troops this week, was attacked.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on October 31 that Moscow “will render Yerevan all necessary assistance if clashes take place directly on the territory of Armenia.”

Earlier on October 31, Pashinian wrote to Putin that violence was getting closer to Armenia’s borders and reiterated that Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey was backing Baku, according to the statement. Pashinian said that violence was getting closer to Armenia’s borders and reiterated that Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey was backing Baku.

“The prime minister of Armenia has asked the Russian president to begin urgent consultations with the aim of determining the kind and amount of aid which the Russian Federation can provide Armenia to ensure its security,” Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on October 31.

‘Urgent’ Steps

The statements came a day after Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to avoid targeting civilian populations and take other “urgent” steps during talks with international mediators in Geneva aimed at helping to bring a halt in fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after three previous cease-fires failed.

In requesting Moscow’s help, Pashinian invoked a 1997 treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance.

Russia, which has a major military base in Armenia, also guarantees Yerevan’s security under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Putin said earlier this month that Russia’s commitments to Armenia as part of CSTO do not include Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Baku is not a CSTO member.

The extension of the fighting into Armenian territory could invoke defense obligations from the CSTO, which Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are also members of.

Article 4 of the CSTO treaty states that “in the event of an act of aggression against any of the participating States, all other participating States will provide it with the necessary assistance, including military [assistance].