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Azerbaijan Claims to Halt Violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Warns Armenia
Azerbaijan announced on Sunday that it had halted combat operations in the sudden, bloody clashes with Armenia over the long-disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it laid the seeds for continued fighting by saying it would keep the slice of territory seized by its forces.
The Azeri Defense Ministry said in a statement posted on its website that Azerbaijan, taking into account appeals for a cease-fire from various international organizations, "has decided to unilaterally cease retaliatory military actions," but that it would continue fighting if Armenia did not stop.
The statement also said Azerbaijan would "strengthen the defense of the liberated territories."
If Azerbaijan consolidates its control over strategic heights seized in fighting on Saturday around several villages in northeastern Nagorno-Karabakh, it will be the first change in the static armistice line in 22 years.
The heavy fighting that erupted over the weekend was the worst since that armistice, leaving about 30 dead. Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has controlled its own affairs with significant military and financial support from Armenia since a separatist war sputtered to a stop in 1994.
Neither Armenia nor the separatist enclave would be likely to find any change in the armistice line acceptable, and both accused Azerbaijan of continuing the fighting in the South Caucasus despite the declared cease-fire.
The situation along the line of contact "remains tense," Artsrun Hovhannisyan, the spokesman for Armenia's Defense Ministry, said in a statement on the ministry's website. "The statement by the Azerbaijan side is an information trap and does not amount to a unilateral cease-fire," he wrote.
Reports from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, said volunteers by the hundreds were streaming toward the front.
David K. Babayan, the spokesman for the president of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, posted statements on Twitter claiming that Azerbaijan was saying one thing while doing another. "Azerbaijani forces continue shelling, trying to intrude into Nagorno-Karabakh's territory," he was quoted as saying by the local news media. The territory is home to about 150,000 people.
Ethnic divisions have long pitted predominantly Christian Armenia against mostly Muslim Azerbaijan, and war between them erupted after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The dispute has continued to simmer since the cease-fire in 1994, with occasional flare-ups. As is usual, each side accused the other of starting the latest fighting, this time by unleashing heavy weapons.
The Kremlin, as the former colonial ruler, has presented itself as a mediator between the two, while also selling arms to both. Russia also maintains a small base in Armenia. On Saturday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called for a cease-fire.
Analysts were struggling to understand what had caused this eruption and whether it indicated the start of a new, violent phase of the war. The ethnic war that began in the late Soviet period claimed more than 20,000 lives and ended in the cease-fire, but there was no final settlement.
The former Soviet Union is dotted with at least five frozen conflicts that Moscow occasionally heats up to exert pressure on independent states it once controlled, including Georgia, Moldova and most recently Ukraine. Russia does not have a proxy force in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as it does in the others, but both the Armenian government in Yerevan and the Azeri government in Baku depend on Moscow to referee the standoff.
Some analysts described the recent fighting as a natural outburst of the tensions that build up along the cease-fire line but that in this case escalated markedly, not least because both sides were deploying far more sophisticated weaponry.
Instead of just exchanging mortar fire, for example, there were reports that the countries were deploying heavy weapons for the first time since 1994, with the two sides lobbing Grad rockets at each other, which cause far more extensive and unpredictable damage.
"A provocation that begins with the use of large-caliber multiple rocket launch systems and gunships has significantly higher chances of leading to an accidental war because of the casualties it can cause," wrote Simon Saradzhyan, a Russia specialist at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in a preliminary online analysis.
Azerbaijan alone in recent years has used its oil wealth to purchase about $4 billion worth of new, mostly Russian weapons. President Ilham Aliyev faced public pressure to show something for the investment, especially amid growing public unrest after the collapse in global oil prices. The country's currency, the manat, dropped about one-third in value against the dollar in December.
The government wants to avoid "leaving the public with the impression that the president has accepted defeat" in terms of ceding control over the separatist region, wrote Maxim Yusin, a Russian analyst, in the daily Kommersant newspaper.
Mr. Aliyev crowed about the blow struck by his forces against Armenia, while accusing the other country of starting the renewed conflict. "I believe April 2 will be a good lesson to them," he was quoted as saying at a meeting of his Security Council on Sunday, according to the Interfax news agency.
Interfax also reported that Mr. Aliyev had suggested that additional Armenian soldiers would die. "But at the same time we will observe the cease-fire, and after that we will try to solve the conflict peacefully," he said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey backed the Azerbaijani position "to the end," according to a statement from his office. "We pray our Azerbaijani brothers will prevail in these clashes," he was quoted as saying.
Turkey and Russia have been at loggerheads over Syria, with previously strong trade relations between the two collapsing after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane it claimed had violated its airspace in November. The idea that Turkey is encouraging a war in the South Caucasus, long a tinderbox for Russia, is unlikely to sit well with the Kremlin.
"Two very unpredictable leaders have direct interests in Nagorno-Karabakh," said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based geopolitical risk analysis company. "That raises risks right there."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been trying to negotiate a settlement for years, condemned the violence and said it will meet Tuesday about the renewed fighting.
Few analysts, however, expected a full-blown war.
"Being a pragmatist, Ilham Aliyev does not want to risk the stability of the present for the sake of the war with an unpredictable outcome," Mr. Yusin, the Russian analyst, wrote in Kommersant.
[Source: By Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times, Moscow, 03Apr16]
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