Armenia, Azerbaijan tensions rise amid claims of new attacks

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Garik Ovanisyan, right, climbs in a bomb crater at his house destroyed by shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery in the town of Martuni, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is escalating, with both sides exchanging accusations and claims of attacks over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Heavy fighting is in a third week despite a cease-fire deal. (AP Photo)

YEREVAN – The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated Wednesday, as both sides exchanged accusations and claims of new attacks over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where heavy fighting continues for a third week despite a Russia-brokered cease-fire deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emphasizing the need to respect the truce that was violated immediately after taking effect Saturday. Putin also voiced concern about the involvement in the conflict by militants from the Middle East — a reference to Turkey deploying Syrian fighters to combat Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan denied the deployment of combatants to the region in separate comments, but a Syrian war monitor and Syria-based opposition activists have confirmed that Turkey has sent hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In a sign that the conflict was widening, Azerbaijan's military said it destroyed an Armenian missile system on the territory of Armenia that was positioned to target civilian areas. Armenia's Defense Ministry responded by stating that it reserves the right to target Azerbaijani military objects and troop movements.

So far, Armenia and Azerbaijan have denied targeting each other's territory in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, although each of the parties often contested the denials.

An expansion of hostilities beyond the separatist region could trigger a dangerous escalation of the decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inside Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994. The Armenian forces also have controlled significant chunks of Azerbaijani territory outside the separatist region.

Armenia's Foreign Ministry condemned Azerbaijan's “attempt at military aggression towards Armenia's sovereign territory” and warned of “irreversible military and political consequences.”

The mutual accusations and threats raised concern about the safety of a strategic pipeline that carries Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea crude oil to Turkey and on to Western markets.