WASHINGTON — As a heavy Azerbaijani artillery barrage Wednesday night killed four unarmed Azeri soldiers, a greater Armenia bombardment wounded five Armenian military personnel, according to Armenian Defense Ministry officials.
The confrontation Thursday morning between the two strategically located nations on the Caspian Sea cost dozens more casualties in Azerbaijan, with Azerbaijani officials reporting that roughly 20 people were missing.
Naran Berdiev, director of the Azerbaijan newspaper Sangu, quoted Azeri military officials as saying that 76 civilians were among those injured. They suffered leg and hand wounds, as well as air, fire and gas inhalation ailments.
The Pentagon didn’t immediately respond to questions about the American response to the war in the region.
The Armenian Daily News, a semi-official service run by the Armenian Defense Ministry, said the Azerbaijani heavy artillery fire was targeting Armenian positions inside Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani military placed the number of Azerbaijani soldiers killed in the gunfire at 42.
It’s the most serious clash between the countries since the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan broke away in the 1990s. Armenia won a bloody conflict over the province in 1994 and continues to occupy more than a third of Azerbaijani territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh is now run under de facto independence by Armenian-backed separatists.
The internecine violence has escalated in recent years, including an inter-familial conflict over land and grazing rights in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2017, the last direct cease-fire in the conflict broke down after two soldiers were killed.
Teams from the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry, Defense Ministry of Armenia and the American-led Partnership for Peace organization were negotiating the immediate issue at the time of the latest clash, according to Armenia’s Daily News. They were aiming to peacefully free the soldiers from Azeri captivity.
The Defense Ministry said the battle was over “the transfer of 14 servicemen of the Azerbaijani Army to a military-controlled area in Nagorno-Karabakh” and that all 14 were released after a “merciless” battle in which several Azeri soldiers were killed and wounded.
Azerbaijan TV carried footage of civilian homes in the city of Shusha being hit by rounds fired from heavy artillery.
Adnan Huseynov, the Armenian head of the Partnership for Peace regional security institute, urged de-escalation of tension.
“We see that the emergency procedures were launched and the situation is being controlled,” he told The Associated Press. “It is important to apply more restraint and avoid a further escalation.”
“An exhaustive investigation is taking place,” Azerbaijan’s ministry of foreign affairs said. “The government … will do everything to find out the real reasons for the incident.”