YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) – Deadly fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh showed no signs of abating on Wednesday despite a US-brokered ceasefire that took effect just two days ago and so far has stopped the flare-up of a decades-old conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh officials said Azerbaijani forces hit Stepanakert, the region’s capital and nearby town of Shushi with Smerch long-range multi-rocket systems, a destructive Soviet-designed weapon that was to ravage wide areas with explosives and cluster munitions. One civilian was killed in Shushi and two more were injured, officials said.
The government-run Armenian Unified Infocenter also reported that Azerbaijani forces were targeting a maternity hospital in Stepanakert.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense denied all allegations and again accused Armenian forces of using the Smerch multiple missile system to fire at the Azerbaijani cities of Terter and Barda. The strike on Barda killed more than 20 people and injured 60, Azerbaijani officials said.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian called the allegations “beating Barda”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev promised on Twitter an “appropriate response” to the strike.
Nagorno-Karabakh is located in Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war that ended in 1994. At that time, Armenian forces not only had Nagorno-Karabakh themselves, but also conquered significant areas outside the territory’s borders.
The latest battle, which began on September 27, has involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones in the largest escalation of hostilities over the separatist region in the quarter century since the end of the war. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people have been killed in the fighting.
The deadly clashes continued for over a month despite numerous calls for peace and three attempts to establish a ceasefire. The latest ceasefire began on Monday after negotiations promoted by the United States and came after two failed attempts by Russia to mediate a lasting ceasefire. All three ceasefire agreements were immediately challenged by reports of violations from both sides.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,068 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far, while 122 civilians have been injured. Azerbaijani authorities have not revealed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed 69 civilians and wounded 322.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that according to Moscow information, the death toll from the fighting was close to 5,000, significantly higher than what both sides report.
Russia, the United States and France have chaired the so-called Minsk Group set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to mediate the conflict, but their attempts to negotiate a political solution have stalled.
Aliyev has repeatedly criticized the Minsk group for failing to make any progress for three decades, insisting that Azerbaijan has the right to regain its territory by force, as international mediation has failed.
The chairmen of the Minsk group will meet with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Geneva on Thursday, but the prospects for progress appear weak.
Turkey, which has thrown its weight behind Azerbaijan in the conflict, has sought to take a more prominent role in the peace talks – something Armenia has strongly opposed.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his ruling party’s lawmakers on Wednesday that during a telephone conversation with Putin the day before, he suggested that Ankara and Moscow work together to resolve the conflict by using their influence over Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders.
“If you want, we can solve this problem together,” Erdogan said, referring to his conversation with Putin. “You are holding talks with (Armenian Prime Minister Nikol) Pashinian and let me have discussions with my brother Ilham (Aliyev). Let’s bring this question to a sweet end. ”
Erdogan did not pass on Putin’s response to his proposal.
The proposal was not mentioned in the Kremlin’s reading of the call. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that only Armenia and Azerbaijan can decide whether or not to involve Turkey in peace talks.
Russia, which has a military base in Armenia and a security deal to protect its ally, has been involved in a delicate diplomatic game while also trying to maintain good ties with Azerbaijan and avoid a showdown with Turkey.
Associated Press authors Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Aida Sultanova in London and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.