Clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated on Monday, with Turkey urging Baku to continue fighting until it reclaims the breakaway Armenian region despite international calls for calm.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Turkey sent military experts, drones and warplanes to reinforce Azerbaijan, while a Syrian war monitor said Ankara had sent at least 300 mercenaries from northern Syria to join Azerbaijani forces.
Karabakh's Defence Ministry said 27 fighters were killed in fighting on Monday, bringing their total military losses to 58.
The death toll rose to at least 67 including nine civilian deaths: seven in Azerbaijan and two on the Armenian side. Azerbaijan has not reported any military casualties.
The fighting that broke out on Sunday is the heaviest since the years Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijain in 1991 after the split of the Soviet Union.
In Yerevan, Artak Bagdasaryan, 36, said he was waiting to be drafted into the army.
“We are tired of Azerbaijan’s threats. we will fight to the death to resolve the problem once and for all,” he said.
Azerbaijan claimed it captured a strategic mountain in Karabakh, which helps it to control transport links between Yerevan and the enclave.
Armenian Defence Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said Karabakh rebel forces killed about 200 Azerbaijani troops and destroyed 30 enemy artillery units and 20 drones.
The region in the Caucasus Mountains covers about 4,400 square kilometres and is about 50km from the Armenian border.
Soldiers backed by Armenia also occupy some Azerbaijani territory outside the region.
Fighting between mainly Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian-majority Armenia threatened to embroil regional players Russia and Turkey, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan calling on global powers to prevent Ankara’s involvement.
“We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus,” Mr Pashinyan said.
France, Germany, Italy and the EU swiftly urged an immediate ceasefire, while Pope Francis prayed for peace.
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his deep concern on Sunday and “strongly called for an immediate end to hostilities”.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was extremely concerned and urged the sides to stop fighting and return to talks.
The US State Department said it had contacted the two countries and called on them to “use the existing direct communication links between them to avoid further escalation”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the military flare-up with Mr Pashinyan and called for an end to hostilities.
But Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey promised Baku its full support.
“The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted.
Azerbaijan accused Armenian forces of breaching a ceasefire, saying it had launched a counter-offensive to “ensure the safety of the population”, using tanks, artillery missiles and drones.
In a televised address to the nation earlier on Sunday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev vowed victory over Armenian forces.
“Our cause is just and we will win,” he said, echoing Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s address at the outbreak of the Second World War.
“Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”
Armenia and Karabakh declared martial law and military mobilisation. Azerbaijan imposed military rule and a curfew in cities.
Armenia said that Azerbaijan attacked civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh including the main city, Stepanakert.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said there were reports of dead and wounded.
“Extensive damage has been inflicted on many homes and civilian infrastructure,” it said.
Talks to resolve one of the worst conflicts to emerge from the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union have been largely stalled since a 1994 ceasefire agreement.
France, Russia and the US have mediated peace efforts as the Minsk Group, but the last big push for a peace deal collapsed in 2010.
“We are a step away from a large-scale war,” Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group told AFP.
“One of the main reasons for the current escalation is a lack of any proactive international mediation for weeks.”
On Sunday morning, Azerbaijan started bombing Karabakh’s front line, including civilian targets, and Stepanakert, Karabakh’s presidency said.
The rebel defence ministry said its troops shot down four Azerbaijani helicopters and 15 drones, which Baku denied.
In July, heavy clashes along the countries’ shared border killed an Azerbaijani civilian and at least 16 soldiers, with losses on both sides.
During clashes in April 2016, about 110 people were killed.