Baku has announced additional fatalities among its servicemen as fighting with separatist forces over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued for a third day.
The disclosure of three deaths brings to 15 the number of Azerbaijani soldiers reported killed amid renewed fighting in the South Caucasus mountain enclave, while 18 combat deaths have been reported by the Armenian-backed separatists. The destruction of heavy military equipment has been claimed by both sides.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict have brought little progress, and there have been sporadic flare-ups of fighting.
A day after the worst outbreak of violence in nearly two decades broke out early on April 2, Azerbaijan announced a unilateral cease-fire. Karabakh military officials said the territory was ready to discuss the terms of a truce, but only in the context of "restoring former positions." The West, Russia, and Iran have appealed to all sides to exhibit restraint.
On April 4, however, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said that separatist forces in Karabakh were shelling Azerbaijan's positions and front-line villages using mortars and grenade launchers.
"In the event of continued Armenian provocations, we will launch a full-scale operation along the entire front line, using all kinds of weapons," ministry spokesman Vagif Dargahly told journalists.
Separatist forces said on April 4 that Azerbaijani troops had "intensified shelling” of their positions, using mortars, rocket-propelled artillery, and tanks.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the separatists "seriously advanced at certain sectors of the front line and took up new positions."
Azerbaijan dismissed the report. Its Defense Ministry said it was in control of several strategic heights in Karabakh that were captured by Azerbaijani troops backed by tanks and heavy artillery on April 2.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in a televised meeting of top advisers on April 2 that troops had achieved a "great victory," while vowing to "observe the cease-fire and after that we will try to solve the conflict peacefully.”
Separatist forces had reportedly launched a counteroffensive in the region's northeast and along the southernmost section of the "line of contact," which effectively serves as a front line separating the opposing sides.
WATCH: Children Hospitalized After Nagorno-Karabakh Clashes
On April 3, RFE/RL correspondents in Nagorno-Karabakh said that ethnic Armenian forces had been reinforcing their frontline positions by calling up hundreds of reservists and deploying heavy artillery.
Hundreds of other Armenians, most of them veterans of the 1988-94 conflict, reportedly were heading to the front lines from Armenia, which is connected to Karabakh by a narrow strip of territory that crosses high mountain passes and deep river valleys.
A legacy of the Soviet breakup known as a "frozen conflict," the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute has bedeviled regional and international leaders for years, with the United States, Russia, and France taking the lead in trying to reach a permanent settlement, and tamp down tensions.
Diplomats from the three states, grouped together in what's called the Minsk Group, said they would convene a full-meeting on April 5 in Vienna to discuss the breakdown of the 21-year-old cease-fire.
... Payvand News - 03/25/16 ... --