YEREVAN, BAKU (Combined Sources)–Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other on Wednesday of triggering an exchange of gunfire in Nagorno-Karabakh that killed up to 16 people, one of the biggest such clashes in several years.
Both sides gave different accounts of the incident. Azerbaijan said 12 Armenian fighters and 4 Azeri soldiers were killed. Armenia’said 8 Azeri soldiers died and 2 Armenian soldiers were injured.
A death toll of 16 would mark the worst clash in recent years between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a big oil producer and home to pipelines taking Caspian Sea energy to world markets.
Armenian President Robert Kocharian said Azerbaijan had launched the attack to take advantage of Armenia’s tense political standoff after protests against last month’s election.
"It is possible in Azerbaijan they thought the situation in Armenia had distracted the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh," said Kocharian.
The West and Russia urged both parties to show restraint. "We do not want a war in the region," a U.S. diplomat said in Baku. "We are following the situation very closely and we urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid any violence."
President of the NATO Jose Lello was in Baku Wednesday discussing the violation with Azeri officials.
The ceasefire breach was an "unpleasant incident," he said. Lello said he hoped that stability along the ceasefire line will be restored soon.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mathew Bryza, who was in Baku on Tuesday, was due in Yerevan later this week to facilitate talks between the government and opposition.
Russia also expressed concern. "The most important thing at the moment is to avoid letting this grow into massive military action in the (region)," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Russia’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Vasily Istratov said he was concerned over because the latest breach differed from previous ones in terms of the type of ammunition and armamen’s used.
Azerbaijan said Armenia was trying to distract attention from protests in Yerevan by focusing on an external enemy.
"The Armenian side resorted to provocations on the frontline in a bid to switch the attention of the international community and its own citizens from internal tensions to an external enemy," said an Azeri Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Foreign Ministry appealed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to intervene and conduct crisis-monitoring in the conflict zone.
Azeri President Ilham Aliev said this week that his country was ready to take back Nagorno-Karabakh by force if need be, and was buying military equipment and arms in preparation. He said Kosovo’s newly declared independence had emboldened Armenia’s in the mountainous enclave.
Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, confirmed there had been an incident between Azeri and Armenian soldiers but did not give a casualty figure.
A Western diplomat in Armenia’said the latest reports of shooting had to be treated seriously. "This does sound in the terms it’s been reported as slightly more than the usual skirmish, but in the current climate it certainly could have been exaggerated," he said. "This is a situatio