Deaths mount in Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes amid truce calls

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Death and injury tolls rose Tuesday as fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces raged for a third week over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the United States urged both sides to adhere to a Russia-brokered cease-fire reached over the weekend.

Nagorno-Karabakh military officials said 16 servicemen were killed, bringing the total number of dead among troops to 532 since Sept. 27, when the latest outburst of fighting flared up in the decades-old conflict.

Azerbaijan hasn’t disclosed its military losses, and the overall toll is likely to be much higher with both sides regularly claiming to have inflicted significant military casualties.

Azerbaijani authorities said 42 civilians have been killed on their side since the start of the fighting. Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan late Monday reported at least 31 civilian deaths in the breakaway region in the past two weeks. Hundreds have been wounded.

The deadly clashes marked the biggest escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies in Azerbaijan but has been under control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994.

After more than 10 hours of marathon talks in Moscow, foreign ministers from Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease-fire deal that took effect Saturday. Russia has a security pact with Armenia, but it also has cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan, allowing it to play mediator.

But immediately after the deal took effect, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of breaching it with continued attacks.

On Tuesday, Azerbaijani officials said Armenian forces shelled some of its regions, and Nagorno-Karabakh officials said Azerbaijan launched “large-scale military operations” along the front line. Each party customarily denies the other side’s claims.

Ali Rastgou, a deputy governor of the Iranian province of Eastern Azerbaijan, said a missile hit farmland 70 kilometers (some 43 miles) northeast of Tabriz, Iran’s third-largest city, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. He said there were no casualties.

IRNA said that since the clashes started, more than 50 rockets hit the border areas of Eastern Azerbaijan.

The fighting has taken a severe toll on residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist territory that came under intense shelling last week, people huddle in the basements of apartment buildings or other shelters, fearing new attacks.

Several believers in the town of Shusha prayed Tuesday in the Holy Savior Cathedral, which last week had its dome pierced by a shell.

“We never shoot their temples or ambulances, while they shoot ours. How can we be with them without a cease-fire?” said Artak, a resident who did not give his last name.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that both countries must “implement their commitments” to a cease-fire and stop targeting civilian areas.

A similar statement came from the so-called Minsk Group, which is working under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and is co-chaired by Russia, France and the U.S. The group’s co-chairs urged the sides to implement a humanitarian cease-fire immediately “to allow the return of remains, prisoners of war, and detainees” and agree to terms of a cease-fire verification process.

Turkey, which has taken a highly visible role during the current hostilities to support its ally Azerbaijan, has criticized other nations for failing to demand the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We have said countless times that the only solution to this problem is for Armenia to withdraw from Azerbaijani territory,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after talks with his Swedish counterpart, Ann Linde, who urged an immediate cease-fire.

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Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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