Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces exchanged more gunfire near the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh over the weekend, killing two civilians and at least two soldiers, officials said Monday.There has been an alarming spike in shootings that Azerbaijani officials say has killed seven soldiers and civilians this month alone. The violence has raised new fears that full-scale fighting could break out again between both sides.
Armenian officials confirmed the weekend shooting, but denied there were fatalities on either side.Azerbaijan and Armenia remain locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh despite more than a decade of efforts by foreign mediators led by the U.S., Russia and France to help reach a resolution.
The region, which is inside Azerbaijan, has been under control of ethnic Armenian forces since a six-year conflict that erupted in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Some 30,000 people were killed and about 1 million were driven from their homes before a cease-fire was reached in 1994.
Gunfire breaks out regularly near Nagorno-Karabakh and the lack of resolution on the region’s status stokes persistent fears of a new war.
Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu said two Azerbaijani civilians were killed and two wounded in the shooting overnight Saturday in the Agdam region.
On Sunday, meanwhile, more small-arms fire broke out in another adjacent region, killing one Azerbaijani soldier and injuring another. An Armenian soldier was killed also, Sabiroglu said.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s defense minister, Lt. Col. Senor Asratian, denied there were fatalities, either civilian or military during the weekend skirmishes.
“As long as you don’t consider the regular violations of the cease-fire from the Azerbaijani side, then one could say that the situation along the line of control are fully normal,” he told The Associated Press.
In Yerevan, meanwhile, the skirmishes prompted comment from President Robert Kocharian, who told reporters that two ethnic Armenian officers were wounded when Azerbaijani forces attacked an outpost on Nagorno-Karabakh’s outskirts.
“It’s been a long time since artillery was used on the front line,” he said.
He said meditators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe later worked to persuade both sides to halt their gunfire.
Ali Hasanov, a top official with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev’s administration, accused Armenia of sparking the violence, and he linked it to the continuing unrest in Armenia that broke out following the Feb. 19 presidential election.
Police violently cracked down on days of protests by supporters of opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, who claimed the vote was flawed. Officials say the man Kocharian endorsed – Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian – won.
“The Armenian leadership has resorted to such provocations to distract attention of Armenians and the international community from the internal situation in the country” Hasanov alleged.
He said five Azerbaijani soldiers and two civilians have been killed this month alone in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, and several civilians and soldiers injured.