YEREVAN – Armenia’s leader urged Russia on Saturday to consider providing security assistance to end more than a month of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, and both sides in the hostilities accused each other of breaking a mutual pledge not to target residential areas hours after it was made.
The fighting represents the biggest escalation in decades in a long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the separatist territory. As Azerbaijani troops pushed farther into Nagorno-Karabakh, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to quickly discuss possible security aid to Armenia.
There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.
Russia, which has a military base in Armenia and has signed a pact obliging it to protect its ally in case of foreign aggression, faces a delicate balancing act, of trying to also maintain good ties with Azerbaijan and avoid a showdown with Turkey.
Pashinian’s request puts Russia in a precarious position: joining the fighting would be fraught with unpredictable consequences and risk an open conflict with Turkey, while refusing to offer protection to its ally Armenia would dent Moscow’s prestige.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. The latest outburst of hostilities began Sept. 27 and left hundreds — perhaps thousands — dead, marking the worst escalation of fighting since the war’s end.
The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met Friday in Geneva for a day of talks brokered by Russia, the United States and France, co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that tries to mediate the decades-long conflict.
The talks concluded close to midnight with the two sides agreeing they “will not deliberately target civilian populations or non-military objects in accordance with international humanitarian law.”
But shortly after the mutual pledge was announced by the Minsk Group co-chairs, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities accused Azerbaijani forces of firing rockets at a street market and a residential building in the separatist region's capital, Stepanakert. They said that residential areas in the town of Shushi also came under Azerbaijani shelling.
In Stepanakert, shop owners came to their stalls to collect their merchandise and clear the debris after the shelling.
“It seems they reached these agreements, but there is no truce at all,” said Karen Markaryan, a shop owner. "People don’t believe these empty words. And what will happen next is only known to God.”
Azerbaijan's defense ministry denied targeting civilian areas, and in turn accused Armenian forces of shelling several regions of Azerbaijan.
The rapid failure of the latest attempt to contain the fighting follows the collapse of three successive cease-fires. A U.S.-brokered truce frayed immediately after it took effect Monday, just like two previous cease-fires negotiated by Russia. The warring sides have repeatedly blamed each other for violations.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to reclaim its territory by force after three decades of fruitless international mediation. He said that Armenia must pledge to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh as a condition for a lasting truce.
Azerbaijani troops, which have relied on strike drones and long-range rocket systems supplied by Turkey, have reclaimed control of several regions on the fringes of Nagorno-Karabakh and pressed their offensive into the separatist territory from the south.
On Thursday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist leader said Azerbaijani troops had advanced to within 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) of the strategically located town of Shushi just south of the region’s capital, Stepanakert, which sits on the main road linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
With Azerbaijani troops moving deeper into Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia’s prime minister made his first public plea for Russia's assistance since the latest fighting started.
While Pashinian stopped short of directly asking Moscow to intervene militarily, he asked Putin to conduct “urgent consultations” on the “type and amount” of assistance that Russia could offer to ensure the security of Armenia. The Armenian leader argued that the fighting is raging increasingly close to the border of Armenia and pointed at alleged attacks on the Armenian territory, according to a statement released by his office.
During more than a month of fighting, Armenia and Azerbaijan have repeatedly accused each other of taking the fighting beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. Each side has denied the opposite claims.
Retired Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhisnky, the former chief of the Russian Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, said Moscow would stay away from the conflict.
“I exclude the Russian military's involvement,” Buzhinsky was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “Azerbaijan is far too important for Russia to wage a war against it and Turkey.”
He noted that Azerbaijan has tried to avoid hitting Armenian territory, so “there is no reason for the Russian military intervention.”
According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,166 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t disclosed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed at least 91 civilians and wounded 400. Putin said last week that, according to Moscow’s information, the actual death toll was significantly higher and nearing 5,000.
Armenia accused Azerbaijan of using white phosphorus munitions in fighting over forests close to residential areas. Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan put what he said was a short video of the attack on Twitter, saying it demonstrated Azerbaijan's “total disrespect of its commitments, continued aggression, devastation of civilian population and use of banned weapons.”
Azerbaijan has denied the accusations of using the incendiary weapons.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.