- By Paul Kirby in London and Konul Khalilova in Baku
- BBC News
Armenia says four soldiers were killed and a fifth injured, in the first outbreak of violence on the border with Azerbaijan since the two neighbors began negotiations on a peace deal.
Azerbaijan said it destroyed an Armenian combat post in the south in retaliation for an earlier incident.
Last year, Azerbaijan reconquered its Nagorno-Karabakh region held for decades by ethnic Armenians.
Armenia now accuses its neighbor of trying to aggravate tensions.
The attack in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province also comes days after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev won a fifth term, and local commentators have expressed concerns that he could consider new military actions to seize Armenian territory.
The Defense Ministry in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, said its attack on the Armenian position near Nerkin Hand came after an Azerbaijani soldier was wounded on Monday a few kilometers away. He also pointed to a separate border incident hundreds of miles to the north, denied by Armenia.
Only recently, senior Azerbaijani officials said that relations between the two neighbors had become calmer over the past six months.
More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled Azerbaijan’s military conquest of Karabakh last September. The South Caucasus territory, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been in Armenian hands for more than 30 years.
The latest outbreak of violence has reignited suggestions that an emboldened Azerbaijan, backed by Russia, may try to force Armenia to open a rail and road route known as the Zangezur Corridor through Armenian territory to its enclave of Nakhichevan and perhaps also Turkey, above all. the peace agreement is signed.
Neighboring Iran is also concerned about Baku’s plans to connect Turkey to Azerbaijan via Armenia.
Russia has urged both neighbors to show restraint. Peacekeepers stationed in Karabakh are due to leave the region next year, but the Kremlin is keen to maintain its presence in the region.
Armenia recently distanced itself from its former ally Russia after failing to prevent Azerbaijan’s military reconquest of Karabakh. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said this month that Moscow can no longer be considered Armenia’s main defense partner and that Yerevan now considers France and India two of its biggest arms suppliers .
Removing Russian influence could prove a difficult task for Armenia. A significant part of Armenia’s infrastructure, including railways, gas and electricity, is under Russian control. There is a Russian military base on Armenian territory and Armenia is a member of Putin’s military and political blocs.
The Russian presence extends to protecting Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran through Russian border guards, who also operate at the international airport in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.
Armenia also discussed constitutional changes, demanded by Azerbaijan as part of the proposed peace deal, to remove from its main law references to the goal of unification with Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku views this as a continuing legal claim to Azerbaijani territory.
Tens of thousands of Armenians have signed a petition opposing constitutional change and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s popularity has declined in Armenia since the military defeat.
Pro-government commentators in Azerbaijan have blamed the surge in violence on Armenian opposition voices, rather than the prime minister, suggesting they have influence over certain sections of the Armenian armed forces.
Gn En world