A new proxy war is brewing in the Middle East today as Turkey flexed its muscles in backing Azerbaijan's offensive against Armenian separatists amid heavy fighting that left at least 39 people dead.
Azerbaijan's armed forces launched a tank offensive against separatists on Sunday in the Nagorno-Karabakh region near Armenia in the Caucasus of the former Soviet republics, which connects Russia and the Middle East.
And fighting continued today after Armenian separatists claimed they were attacked by Turkish mercenaries and F-16 fighter planes in the disputed region, which is part of Azerbaijan but is mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians.
Separatist leader Arayik Harutyunyan accused Turkey of "aggressive and expansionist policies" in the region, while Ankara pledged its full support for "our Azerbaijani brothers" after some of the worst clashes in years.
Both sides accuse each other of having fired heavy artillery in clashes in which hundreds were injured. "Dozens of bodies of Azerbaijani soldiers" were charged in the area fought over last night.
Armenia is predominantly Christian, while oil-rich Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country and they have been embroiled in a territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades.
While Azerbaijan and Turkey are close allies and share cultural and linguistic ties, relations between Turkey and Armenia are still marked by the genocide in the early 20th century in which up to 1.5 million Armenians were deported by their Ottoman rulers were killed.
The proxy conflict could also attract Russia, an ally of Armenia with a military base in the country, and wreak havoc on global oil and gas supplies, which run through pipelines in the South Caucasus.
A Kremlin spokesman today called on Azerbaijan and Armenia to cease all military activities and said the fighting in Moscow was of serious concern.
A frame from a video posted on the official website of the Armenian Defense Ministry on September 27 allegedly shows the destruction of Azerbaijani military vehicles in clashes between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region
Crossroads between the Middle East and Russia: The fighting takes place in the controversial Nagorno-Karabakh of Azerbaijan, which is controlled by separatists allied with Armenia. Turkey borders Aremenia but is an ally of Azerbaijan, and Ankara's support for Baku is the region's latest military adventure after incursions into Syria and Libya. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics bordering Iran. Moscow has asked both sides to end the fighting
Footage released by the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region shows the bodies of men in military uniform, allegedly Azerbaijani military personnel, killed in clashes over the disputed region
Azerbaijani troops conduct combat operation in clashes between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijan in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region
Rocket fire from the Azerbaijani side during some of the worst acts of violence in the disputed region since a war in the 1990s resulted in a stalemate
Turkish massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians, which affects relations between Christian and Muslim nations to this day
Up to 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up, deported and massacred by their Turkish rulers in the massacre of the early 20th century, which has poisoned relations between the two countries to this day.
Armenia was once part of the Ottoman Empire, but in the late 19th century the empire disintegrated and tensions increased between the mostly Christian Armenians and their Muslim rulers.
Things came to a head during the First World War. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914, and many Armenians were suspected of supporting the Russian enemy.
On April 24, 1915, thousands of Armenians suspected of representing nationalist views and hostile to Ottoman rule were rounded up.
On May 26, a special law approved deportations "for reasons of internal security" on charges of "Armenian treason" in favor of the Russians. The Armenian population in Anatolia and Cilicia, referred to as the "enemy within", was exiled in the Mesopotamian desert.
Large numbers were killed on the way or in the internment camps, while others were hanged in the streets of Istanbul.
Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the massacres
According to foreign diplomats and secret services, many of them were burned alive, drowned, poisoned or fell victim to disease.
Others died of starvation or were shot or bayoneted by Ottoman Turkish soldiers. As a result, the survivors fled and their homes were destroyed.
In addition, tens of thousands of children have been forcibly removed from their families and converted to Islam.
The murders finally ended in the early 1920s after the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and an independent Armenian state was created.
Today the countries no longer have formal diplomatic relations and Armenia calls the massacre the "first terrible genocide of the 20th century". The Armenian government says the country has "lost a million and a half lives, a home, a cultural heritage" in what it calls "systematic extermination".
Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed, but estimates the number at no more than 500,000, arguing that there have been deaths on both sides. It also strongly opposes the term "genocide", claiming that there is no systematic intention to exterminate the Armenians and that they died in bloody anarchy rather than on official orders.
In 2014, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of "shared pain" over the murders, but last year he slammed France for officially reminding of the "genocide".
Last year, both houses of the US Congress voted to recognize the killings as genocide, but Donald Trump dismissed their view. That same year, US reality star Kim Kardashian – whose family has Armenian ancestors – laid flowers on the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged support for traditional ally Azerbaijan and said Armenia is "the greatest threat to peace in the region".
Erdogan called on "the whole world to stand with Azerbaijan in the fight against invasion and cruelty".
"We are defending our territory, our cause is right!" Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in an address to the nation.
The Armenian ambassador to Russia said Turkey had sent around 4,000 fighters from northern Syria to Azerbaijan and they took part in the fighting.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry claimed that "Turkish military experts are fighting side by side with Azerbaijan using Turkish weapons, including UAVs and fighter jets".
The local situation "clearly shows" that the people in Nagorno-Karabakh are fighting against "a Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance," the statement said.
However, an aide to the Azerbaijani President called the allegations "another provocation on the Armenian side and complete nonsense".
Turkey has a military presence in Libya and launched a major offensive in Syria last year after the US withdrew from the country.
Turkey's growing regional influence was cemented by a pact with Russia after the military attack, in which the two countries conducted joint patrols in Syria.
Earlier this year, Turkish F-16s took part in joint military exercises in Azerbaijan, while Armenia conducted exercises with Russia.
The hostility of Armenia towards Turkey is based on the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
More than 30 countries have recognized the murders as genocide, although Ankara vehemently denies the term.
Ethnic Armenian separatists captured the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Baku in a 1990s war that killed 30,000 people. However, the region's independence is not officially recognized by any country – not even Armenia.
President Donald Trump said Sunday that the United States would try to end the violence.
"We're looking at it very carefully," he said at a press conference. & # 39; We have a lot of good relationships in this area. We'll see if we can stop it. & # 39;
Democratic candidate Joe Biden urged the White House to call for more observers along the ceasefire line and accused Russia of "cynical arms supply on both sides."
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan by phone, but details of the conversation were not known.
Russia has a military base in Armenia and regards it as a strategic partner in the South Caucasus, supplying the ex-Soviet country with weapons.
The Kremlin has posed as a mediator, but Azerbaijan claimed last month that Moscow "heavily armed" Armenia following earlier clashes in July.
"Building materials are not normally delivered on airplanes, but there are other tools for that," said an Azerbaijani official after Russia said the Il-76 strategic airlifts only carried building materials.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "maintains intensive contacts to get the parties to stop the fire and start negotiations to stabilize the situation," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
Armenia has also sought closer ties with the West, but diplomats believe they are "seen in Washington as too pro-Russian and Brussels (and) in Moscow as too pro-Western," analysts say.
The latest escalation has sparked patriotic fervor in both countries.
“We have waited so long for this day. The fighting must not stop until we force Armenia to give our land back, ”said Vidadi Alekperov, a 39-year-old waiter in Baku. "I will go to the battlefield happy."
In Yerevan, 67-year-old Vardan Harutyunyan said Armenia was expecting the attack. & # 39; The question can only be resolved militarily. We're not afraid of war, ”he said.
The EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Pope Francis have all called on both countries to stop their military operations.
Pipelines carrying Caspian oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan to the world run near Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia also warned of security risks in the South Caucasus in July after Azerbaijan threatened to attack a nuclear power plant as possible retaliation.
Both countries also border Iran, which has called for a peaceful solution but is viewed by some analysts as closer to Armenia.
Azerbaijan's president said his military had suffered losses in the fighting over the controversial separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region
Armenia also alleged that two Azerbaijani helicopters were shot down and three Azerbaijani tanks were hit by artillery, but the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has denied this claim
An Azerbaijani service member drives an armored carrier and greets people who gather at the roadside in Baku on Sunday
People queue at the roadside to greet Azerbaijani service members driving a truck in Baku
A still from a video released by the Armenian Defense Ministry allegedly depicts Azerbaijani armored vehicles, one of which is destroyed by Armenian forces
The Armenian Defense Ministry allegedly shows Azerbaijani tanks on the front line of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic between Armenia and Azerbaijan above and below
How controversial the region has caused decades of conflict
Tensions in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region have caused war, provoked others, and killed thousands of people in more than 30 years.
Until 1991 the area was in the Soviet Union and most decisions were made in Moscow.
But when the USSR fell apart, it became clear that Nagorno-Karabakh would fall under Azerbaijani rule – which was unacceptable to the Armenian majority.
The sectarian conflict broke out and escalated into war between Azerbaijan's troops and Armenian forces in 1991. Thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence that year, but it was not generally recognized. The Armenian government was in legal limbo and was blocked by the Azerbaijani government.
Until 1994, when a ceasefire was agreed, ethnic Armenians controlled almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as some surrounding Azerbaijani districts, which gave them a buffer zone and land bridge connecting their region with Armenia.
Azerbaijan promised to regain control of the territory and use military force if necessary. The country is supported by its ethnic ally, Turkey.
Deadly fighting broke out in 2016 and earlier this year, raising fears of a new war and proxy conflict in Russia and other powers.
International efforts to find a lasting peace settlement, in which France, the United States and Russia have acted as mediators, have failed to reach an agreement over the years.
The Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, Chairman of the OSCE, called on both sides to stop the fighting.
The long and unsuccessful negotiations to resolve the status of the territory were conducted under the auspices of the OSCE.
Both ex-Soviet countries declared martial law after the shelling, which Azerbaijan claimed to have killed up to 550 separatist troops, although Armenia denied it.
The separatists said Monday that 15 more of their fighters had been killed, bringing the total death toll reported by both sides to 39.
It was not immediately clear what sparked the fighting, the worst since the clashes in July that killed 16 people on both sides.
Seven civilian deaths have previously been reported, including an Azerbaijani family of five and a wife and child on the Armenian side.
Azerbaijan has not yet announced any military casualties, but Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan claimed that "dozens of corpses of Azerbaijani soldiers" were lying overnight in the reclaimed territory.
She said the heavy fighting continued on Monday morning, claiming that the Armenian Armed Forces had regained positions taken by Azerbaijan on Sunday.
But Baku claimed further progress, with the Defense Ministry claiming the enemy was withdrawing.
Azerbaijani armed forces "are hitting enemy positions with missile artillery and aviation … and have taken several strategic positions around Talysh village".
According to official figures, 16 people were killed and more than 100 injured on Sunday after fighting broke out again between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.
Armenia also claimed that two Azerbaijani helicopters were shot down and three Azerbaijani tanks were hit by artillery, but the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense denies this.
The hostilities that year were the worst since 2016, when intense fighting killed dozens and threatened to escalate into an all-out war.
Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in a conflict that broke out when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Although a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia frequently accuse each other of attacks around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the separate Azerbaijani-Armenian border after the deaths of thousands of people and many more displaced persons.
Around 110 people were killed in the most recent clashes in Karabakh in April 2016.
In July 2020, severe clashes along the common border between the two countries – hundreds of kilometers from Karabakh – claimed the lives of at least 17 soldiers on both sides.
France, Russia and the United States brokered peace efforts as the "Minsk Group", but the last major push for a peace agreement collapsed in 2010.
Artur Sarkisian, deputy chief of the Nagorno-Karabakh Army, said 16 people were killed and more than 100 injured
Earlier, the Armenian Human Rights Ombudsman said a woman and a child were killed in the shelling
This picture is supposed to show Azerbaijani armored vehicles, one of which is destroyed by Armenian forces in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh
In this flyer photo, taken from material released on Sunday by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense, the Azerbaijani armed forces are destroying the Armenian air defense system on the contact line of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out on Sunday in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian Defense Ministry said two Azerbaijani helicopters had been shot down
In 2019, Kim Kardashian – whose family has Armenian ancestors – visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan
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