Azerbaijan launched “an offensive” against Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian PM said amid reports of Azeri aircraft being shot down. Baku insists it is taking “retaliatory measures” in the disputed Armenian-populated region.
Hostilities resumed along the frontier of Nagorno-Karabakh earlier on Sunday, with top officials in both Armenia and Azerbaijan confirming the news.
“The enemy has started an attack on Artsakh,” Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told his Facebook audience, referring to the Armenian name for the territory claimed by Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh forces “successfully repel the attack,” and the situation is under control, the premier informed.
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Separately, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said the military has launched “a counteroffensive operation along the entire front” in a bid to safeguard civilians and contain Armenian forces. The counterattack involves infantry and armored units supported by the Air Force, Baku revealed.
As the crisis unfolded, top officials in Baku reported Armenian forces have been shelling Azerbaijani army positions and populated areas, a claim Yerevan is yet to confirm.
On their part, leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh said Stepanakert, the region’s largest city of over 55,000 people, has also been hit by Azerbaijani artillery. “We urge the population to remain calm and take cover,” a spokesperson for Nagorno-Karabakh president wrote on Facebook.
There have been conflicting casualty reports from both sides later in the day. Azerbaijan’s military have confirmed a combat helicopter was shot down but that its crew survived, adding there have been an unspecified number of victims among civilians. It also claimed 12 Armenian air defense systems were hit and destroyed.
Meanwhile, Armenian army insisted the Azerbaijani losses have been much higher, amounting to 2 helicopters, 3 tanks and 3 drones. “The enemy sustained casualties in manpower,” Shushan Stepanyan, spokeswoman for the Armenian defense ministry, suggested.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been sworn enemies since gaining independence in the 1990s. The focus of their conflict is Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian region landlocked inside Azeri territory, which Baku considers to be under its sovereignty and Yerevan treats as an independent friendly nation.
Armenian militias in Nagorno-Karabakh fought a successful six-year-long guerrilla war against Azerbaijan.
The latest major flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan happened in April 2016, when the nations fought for four days and deployed heavy weapons, including tanks and aircraft. The battles had claimed the lives of over 90 troops on each side and killing over a dozen civilians.
bbc wrote: What are the two sides saying?
The Armenian Defence Ministry said an attack on civilian settlements, including the regional capital Stepanakert, began at 08:10 local time (04:10 GMT).
It said it had shot down two helicopters and three drones.
"Our response will be proportionate, and the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan bears full responsibility for the situation," it said in a statement.
Meanwhile Azerbaijan announced a "counter-offensive operation of our troops along the entire front to suppress the combat activity of the armed forces of Armenia and ensure the safety of the civilian population".
It said one helicopter had been lost but the crew had survived, and 12 Armenian air defence systems had been destroyed.
Tensions last flared into conflict in 2016, with the countries clashing over the disputed territory for four days.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has long been trying to mediate a settlement of the conflict, with diplomats from France, Russia and the US - making up the OSCE Minsk Group - trying to build on a ceasefire.