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Azerbaijan Launches Deadly Attack in Disputed Nagoro-Karabakh

An explosion is seen over an area where, according to Azerbaijan, there were positions of Armenian armed forces in the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Azerbaijan on Sept. 19, 2023. (Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense via AP)
An explosion is seen over an area where, according to Azerbaijan, there were positions of Armenian armed forces in the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Azerbaijan on Sept. 19, 2023. (Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense via AP)

Azerbaijan took the offensive Tuesday against Armenian positions in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and opened fire, including in areas inhabited by civilians.

Local officials reported that the military action killed or injured dozens of civilians in the enclave, which is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but entirely surrounded by Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan called the effort an “anti-terrorist operation.” Its defense ministry said action was taken in response to landmine explosions that killed four soldiers and two civilians in the region.

Armenia called the action ethnic cleansing.

France strongly condemned Azerbaijan for what it called unjustified military action and called on Azerbaijan, which has for months been blockading the region, to end the attack and respect international law.

The European Union also condemned the action. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called for Azerbaijan to stop its military activities, saying, “There is an urgent need to return to dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians.”

Azerbaijan alleged that Armenia had been illegally smuggling in weapons, which caused them to set up the blockade, leading to civilians losing access to necessities such as food and medicine. Last year, Azerbaijanis began a blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the last road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, triggering the shortages.

France asked that Azerbaijan be held accountable for the civilian lives that have been taken or put in danger and requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which will take place on Thursday.

France said it will be working closely with European and American allies to ensure a response is taken to the action by Azerbaijan.

Russia also has called for peace in the region and been in talks with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has had close ties to both countries and has a military base in Armenia. But its ties with that country have come under strain recently with Armenia holding military exercises with the United States.

Russia contacted Azerbaijan regarding its military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Tuesday.

“Baku is providing Moscow information on the operation,” Zakharova said.

A U.S. State Department official told the Reuters news agency that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is likely to become involved in the diplomatic engagement already underway on the issue. Blinken met with officials from the two countries in June.

“The United States is deeply concerned by Azerbaijan’s military actions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls on Azerbaijan to cease these actions immediately,” Blinken said in a statement Tuesday. “These actions are worsening an already dire humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and undermine prospects for peace.”

War broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan for six weeks in 2020, and there is growing concern the conflict could resume.

Nagorno-Karabakh had been under ethnic Armenian control since 1994, but parts of it were reclaimed by Azerbaijan after the war in 2020. Russian peacekeepers were placed in the region.

Armenia has complained that the Russian peacekeeping contingent has neglected to keep the road from Armenia open. Tensions grew further between the two nations as Armenia promoted ratifying the Rome Convention (Statute), which established the International Criminal Court that issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March.

Ambassador James Warlick is a former U.S co-chair of the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group. The group heads efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. France, Russia and the United States are co-chairs.

In an interview with VOA’s Armenian service, Warlick spoke of Armenia’s complaint about the actions of Russian peacekeepers during the escalation, noting, “Russians are clearly preoccupied elsewhere,” an apparent reference to the war in Ukraine.

“Their peacekeepers have done little if anything to maintain peace. In fact, there is a need for peacekeepers in the region and they need to do their jobs to ensure that the facts of the agreement move forward and peace is maintained,” he said.

Russia denied claims Azerbaijan informed it of plans to take action before the attack occurred.

Some information for this story was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters. VOA’s Armenian service contributed to this report.