Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

France and Turkey at odds as Karabakh fighting divides Nato allies

Dozens have been reported killed and hundreds wounded in conflict since Sunday that has spread well beyond enclave’s boundaries

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban visit the Central Military Clinical Hospital of the Defence Ministry to meet with Azeri service members, who were wounded during clashes over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Baku, Azerbaijan September 30, 2020. President of Azerbaijan/Handout via REUTERS 
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban visit the Central Military Clinical Hospital of the Defence Ministry to meet with Azeri service members, who were wounded during clashes over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Baku, Azerbaijan September 30, 2020. President of Azerbaijan/Handout via REUTERS 

Nato allies France and Turkey traded angry recriminations on Wednesday as international tension mounted over the fiercest clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces since the mid-1990s.

On the fourth day of fighting, Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh accused each other of shelling along the line that divides them in the mountainous South Caucasus.

Dozens have been reported killed and hundreds wounded in fighting since Sunday that has spread beyond the enclave’s boundaries, threatening to spill into all-out war between the former Soviet republics.

The eruption of one of the “frozen conflicts” dating to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union has raised concerns about stability in the South Caucasus, a corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets.

It also raised fears that regional powers Russia and Turkey could be drawn in.

Armenian Defence Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan tweeted a video of huge explosions from artillery fire, accompanied by dramatic pounding music and captioned “Takeover of an Azerbaijan position”.

Azerbaijan released footage showing its forces firing volleys of rockets at enemy sites, and grey smoke rising from inside Nagorno-Karabakh as it was battered by Azeri artillery.

Concern about Turkish role

Some of Turkey’s Nato allies are increasingly alarmed by Ankara’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region inside Azerbaijan.

Echoing remarks by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday said Turkey would “do what is necessary” if Azerbaijan asked for military support.

Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, later thanked Turkey but said his country did not need military support.

Fighting would cease if Armenian forces immediately “leave our lands", Mr Aliyev said.

But Armenia said one of its Su-25 warplanes was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet on Tuesday. Ankara denied the report.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Syrian and Libyan fighters from illegal armed groups were being sent to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and urged countries involved to prevent the use of “foreign terrorists and mercenaries” in the conflict.

Two Syrian rebel sources have said that Turkey is sending mercenaries from areas of northern Syria it controls to support Azerbaijan.

Mr Cavusoglu said French solidarity with Armenia amounted to supporting the country's occupation in Azerbaijan.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is home to many people of Armenian ancestry, hit back during a visit to Latvia.

Mr Macron said France was extremely concerned by “warlike messages” from Turkey that “essentially remove any of Azerbaijan’s inhibitions in reconquering Nagorno-Karabakh”.

“And that we won’t accept,” he said.

Moscow offers to host talks

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was willing to host the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan for talks, his ministry said.

Mr Lavrov spoke with both foreign ministers and called for a ceasefire and a halt to “provocative, warlike rhetoric”.

He said Russia would continue to work independently and together with other representatives of the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to mediate in the conflict.

France has said it wants the Minsk Group, which is led by Moscow, Paris and Washington, to address the conflict.

EU leaders will also discuss it at a summit this week, a German government source said.

Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in the 1990s in a war that killed an estimated 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Civilian casualties

In Wednesday’s clashes, Armenian media said three civilians had been killed and several wounded by shelling in the town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.

One person was killed and three wounded by Armenian fire on the town of Horadiz in southern Azerbaijan, the Azeri Prosecutor’s office said.

Azerbaijan said ethnic Armenian forces tried to recover lost ground by launching counter-attacks in the direction of Madagiz, but Azeri forces repelled the attack.

Armenia said the Azeri army had been shelling the whole front line during the night and two Azeri drones were shot down over Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s administrative centre.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, said he was not considering asking for Russia’s help at this point under a post-Soviet security treaty, but did not rule out doing so.

The Kremlin said its military was closely following developments.

Updated: October 1, 2020 12:05 AM

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