An intense artillery attack by Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has raised fears another full-scale conflict with Armenia could be underway, less than three years after a war killed more than 6,000 people.
Nagorno-Karabakh, with a population of about 120,000, is an ethnic Armenian region of Azerbaijan that has been a flashpoint since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian military at the 1994 end of a separatist war but Azerbaijan regained some surrounding territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself in fighting in 2020.
That war ended with an agreement to deploy Russian peacekeepers in the region, but tensions have soared since December when Azerbaijan began blocking the road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper.
The artillery firing Azerbaijan calls an “anti-terrorist operation” started hours after it said four soldiers and two civilians were killed by landmines it claimed were planted by Armenian saboteurs.
“It looks like it could be, unfortunately, terrible - war number three, something that people have been fearing but hoping to avoid with diplomacy in the last few weeks and months,” said Thomas de Waal, a regional specialist at the Carnegie Europe foundation.
Ethnic Armenian authorities in the Caucasus Mountains region urged Azerbaijan to sit down for talks, but Azerbaijan‘s presidential administration said it will continue until “illegal Armenian military formations” surrender and the separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh dismantles itself.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry denied its weapons or troops were in Nagorno-Karabakh and called reported sabotage and land mines in the region “a lie.”
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiyan charged the main goal of Azerbaijan is to draw Armenia into hostilities.
The mountainous region has significant cultural importance to both Armenians and Azeris. It had a substantial degree of autonomy within Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union.
As the USSR deteriorated, Armenian separatist unrest broke out, later turning into a full-scale war after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Most of the Azeri population was driven out by the end of the fighting in 1994.
Then amid the 2020 fighting, around 90,000 ethnic Armenians were displaced, some of them setting their homes ablaze before Azeris could resettle.
The Russian peacekeeping force was tasked with ensuring that the road leading to Armenia, called the Lachin Corridor, would remain open.
But it has been mostly blocked since December as Azerbaijan alleged Armenians were smuggling in weapons and conducting illicit resource extraction.
That brought severe food shortages to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian allegations that Azerbaijan aimed for a genocide by starvation.