The uneasy ceasefire on the frontline held by Armenian forces from Nagorny Karabakh and the Azerbaijani military was broken early on March 4, IWPR reports, and notes that some people have been questioning, whether front-line skirmish was connected with political turmoil in Armenia.
Accounts differ as to who fired first. But all agree it was the most serious breach of the ceasefire in a decade, and one that could have alarming consequences if it were repeated.
Azerbaijani defence ministry spokesman Eldar Sabirogli said Armenian units broke the ceasefire by firing on Azerbaijani positions near the villages of Cheliburt, Talish and Gapanli in the Terter district, and the Tapgaragoyunli settlement in neighbouring Geranboy district. Both districts are to the north and east of Nagorny Karabakh.
Armenian sources confirmed that the fighting was in this general area, adjacent to the Mardakert district of Nagorny Karabakh.
Sabirogli said four Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and two civilians injured.
Senor Hasratian, spokesman for the defence ministry of the unrecognised Karabakh government, also cited a figure of four Azerbaijani dead and said two Armenian soldiers were injured, although in neither case were the wounds life-threatening.
He dismissed the accusations coming out of Baku, saying, “They are deliberately distorting things. If we had launched an attack, the bodies of the four Azerbaijani soldiers who died would not be lying on territory held by the army of Nagorny Karabakh.”
The two sides agreed on these casualty figures, although according to Reuters, the Azerbaijanis also claimed that the Armenians lost 12 soldiers, which Hasratian denied.
The defence ministry of Armenia itself, which treats Nagorny Karabakh as a separate and independent entity, came out with a statement blaming the Azerbaijanis for starting the firefight.
Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian said Azerbaijani forces seized an important defensive position held by the other side, which then responded with gunfire, regained the territory, and forced their opponents back to their original lines.
Major Hachik Tavadyan, one of those injured on the Nagorny Karabakh side, confirmed this account of events from his hospital bed, adding, “I was there and I know how it started. I cannot tell a lie – they attacked us first.”
Other commentators in Azerbaijan, Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia tended to identify internal political factors which might have prompted the opposing side to deliberately seek a confrontation.
David Babayan, a political analyst in Nagorny Karabakh, speculated that the Azerbaijani leadership might have been probing their opponents’ defences at a time when Armenia itself is in political turmoil.
A second possibility, he suggested, was that Baku was seriously concerned that Nagorny Karabakh’s aspirations for independence had moved a step forward following the declaration of independence by Kosovo, another former autonomous territory within a Communist state.
“Azerbaijan is seriously worried about the right of nations to self-determination, and it chose to react by using force,” he said.
A common theme among analysts across the region was that the exchange of gunfire was in some way connected with the domestic political strife in Armenia, where opposition protests over the results of the February 19 presidential election ended in bloodshed on March 1. Eight people were reported dead after running battles between police and demonstrators in the capital Yerevan.
Azerbaijani political scientist Rasim Musabekov believes the administration of outgoing president Robert Kocharian and his elected successor Serzh Sarkisian stood to gain from creating a diversion to distract attention from their own problems.
Armed forces chief of staff Lt-Gen Sadigov made a similar point, saying the ceasefire was a direct consequence of Armenia’s internal troubles.
Armenia’s foreign minister Vardan Oskanian, meanwhile, accused Baku of “taking advantage of the exacerbation of the internal political situation in Armenia”.
Despite the exchange of recriminations between Azerbaijan and Armenian politicians, and the flurry of international efforts to smooth over the crisis, not everyone was so exercised about it.
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