Vienna / AFP
Talks to end the worst violence in decades in the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh kicked off in Vienna on Tuesday.
The meeting gathered Russia, the United States and France in the so-called Minsk Group, spearheading attempts to end a low-key conflict that revived bloodily and dangerously last Friday.
Analysts say the crisis could set a spark to the Caucasus, a tinder-box region of rival groups.
Russia and the United States have called for the fighting to end but Turkey is standing by Azerbaijan, and predicts the territory its ally has lost will “one day” be recovered.
A landlocked mountainous region with an ethnic Armenian majority lying within Azerbaijan, Nagorny Karabakh has been in dispute since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separatists backed by Yerevan announced allegiance to Armenia and then declared an independent republic, a move that has not been recognised elsewhere, including by Armenia. In the subsequent fighting, around 30,000 lives were lost and thousands of people from both ethnic groups fled their homes.
A ceasefire brokered by Russia was signed in 1994, but the two foes have never agreed on a lasting peace.
Sporadic clashes occur along the front line, but the latest bloodshed represents a perilous escalation, say commentators. The flare-up “threatens the stability of the strategic Caucasus region which is a transit route of Caspian oil and gas to European markets that bypasses Russia, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies,” Sergi Kapanadze, a professor of international relations at the Tbilisi State University, said.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force.
It claims to have captured several strategic positions inside Karabakh since fighting erupted on Friday, in what would be the first change in the frontline since the end of the war.
Baku announced a unilateral truce on Sunday, but it failed to stop the fighting, and on Monday Armenia said a ceasefire would only be possible if both sides return to their previous positions.
Azerbaijan’s defence minister, Zakir Gasanov, instead ordered the army to be ready to strike Karabakh’s self-declared capital Stepanakert “in case of continued Armenian bombardment of civilian targets in Azerbaijan.”
Hundreds of ethnic Armenian volunteers have since headed to the city to fight alongside separatist forces, while local authorities have been busy organising shelters for the refugees from frontline villages.
The talks in Vienna were to start at 1300 GMT, but Tuesday’s session was scheduled to be brief and with no announcement to the media.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which has sold weaponry to both sides but has far closer economic and military ties to Armenia, has called for a ceasefire, a move echoed by Washington.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—another regional power broker who has been at loggerheads with Putin since Ankara downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November—has stood alongside Azerbaijan.
“We are today standing side-by-side with our brothers in Azerbaijan. But this persecution will not continue forever,” Erdogan said in televised comments.
“Karabakh will one day return to its original owner. It will be Azerbaijan’s”.