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Dozens killed in heavy fighting around disputed Nagorno-Karabakh

Heavy fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region left at least 30 soldiers and two civilians dead.

Heavy fighting broke out early on Saturday between Azerbaijan and Armenia around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus leaving at least 30 soldiers and two civilians dead.

A spokesperson for Nagorno-Karabakh’s president said a boy of about 12 was killed and two other children were wounded in a missile attack, while Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said one Azeri civilian died.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said that 12 of its soldiers had been killed. It said one Mi-24 helicopter was shot down and a tank had been destroyed by a mine.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said 18 ethnic Armenian soldiers had been killed and 35 wounded.

Although officially part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since the 1990s. The two countries are technically still at war over the region because a final peace deal was never agreed despite a 1994 ceasefire.

Both sides have blamed each other for the latest fighting. Armenia’s Defense Ministry said Azerbaijan launched an attack using artillery, tanks and aircraft around 2 a.m. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense blamed Armenia, saying that its soldiers responded to an Armenian attack.

Both sides also claimed to have inflicted significant losses on the other. Azerbaijan says more than 100 Armenian soldiers were killed or wounded and six tanks and 15 artillery positions had been destroyed. The Nagorno-Karabakh defence ministry claimed more than 200 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed. Neither claim can be corroborated.

A century-old conflict

The two states are technically still at war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, where fighting between 1988 and 1994 killed about 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Although officially part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent state.

Armenian forces also occupy land around Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides are separated by a demilitarised buffer zone. Small clashes break out frequently, but the situation has escalated in recent months. In December, Azerbaijani tanks shelled positions in Nagorno-Karabakh for the first time in nearly two decades.

Conflict in the region has roots in competition between ethnic Armenians and Azeris following the 1917 Russian revolution when Karabakh became the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region. The region, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, was majority-Armenian.

The region’s parliament voted to join Armenia in the 1980s and declared itself an independent republic following the fall of the Soviet Union. The split led to war between Azerbaijani troops and ethnic Armenians, who eventually gained control. A ceasefire signed in 1994 left Karabakh as a buffer zone around an Armenian enclave within Azeri territory.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to take back the region by force. Russia-backed Armenia, whose entire state budget is dwarfed by oil-rich Azerbaijan’s military spending, has said it could “crush” any offensive.

Azerbaijan counts Turkey as an ally, although Turkish support for the majority Muslim country has its roots in anti-Armenian sentiment within Turkey dating back to sectarian tensions in the 19th century. Turkey’s border with Armenia was closed in 1993.

Main image: An Azerbaijani helicopter downed during fighting in Karabakh. Nagorno Karabakh Foreign Ministry/Twitter.

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