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Armenia and Azerbaijan exchange fire ahead of key talks in Brussels

The hills above the Armenian village of Sotk. Photo: Gayane Mkrtchyan/OC Media

Conflict broke out on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on Thursday morning, with both sides accusing the other of breaking the ceasefire. It comes amidst renewed international mediation of the conflict, and ahead of a meeting between the two countries’ leaders in Brussels.

Armenia’s Defence Ministry accused Azerbaijan of using artillery and mortars to attack Armenian military positions in Sotk, in east Armenia, early on Thursday morning. Drone footage released by Azerbaijani pro-government media appeared to confirm the use of artillery on an Armenian position.

Azerbaijan, however, claimed that Armenia had prompted the escalation by firing at Azerbaijani military positions from Sotk on Wednesday evening, injuring one Azerbaijani soldier, and killing another the following day. 

Armenia reported four service members wounded in the shootout, and accused Azerbaijan of targeting an ambulance carrying wounded soldiers. Armenia’s Health Ministry issued a statement describing the alleged attack as ‘against all international humanitarian laws, even the laws of war’. 

After Washington, before Brussels

The fresh clashes came shortly after four days of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers in Washington, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as having made progress. Another round of negotiations, this time between Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, is expected to be held in Brussels on Sunday, mediated by EU Council President Charles Michel. 

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan (left), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (centre), and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. Photo: US State Department.

[Read more: Armenia–Azerbaijan peace deal ‘within reach’, Blinken says]

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministries accused the other country of obstructing negotiations following Thursday’s clashes.

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Armenia’s Foreign Ministry swiftly condemned Azerbaijan’s ‘provocative and aggressive actions՛, claiming they showed ‘an open disregard for the meeting held in Washington, the meetings planned in Brussels and Moscow’. 

Their Azerbaijani counterpart ministry made similar accusations, stating that Armenia’s ‘provocations’ against a backdrop of intensifying negotiations demonstrated that Armenia was not interested in the peace process. 

Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations had been stalled for months since the blockade of the Lachin corridor began in mid-December last year. Armenia has consistently demanded that Azerbaijan lift the blockade, as Azerbaijan denied that a blockade was in place, while installing a checkpoint at the entrance of the corridor in April. 

In a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan of trying to ‘nullify’ progress made in the Washington talks. 

‘Today’s provocation also seeks to disrupt the trilateral format talks in Brussels on Sunday, as well as the five-sided talks in Chisinau planned for 1 June’, Pashinyan said. 

‘Experience shows that Azerbaijan needs the negotiation process only to find a reason for escalation and war, while escalations are used exclusively for nullifying any progress achieved in the talks. This is what’s happening now.’ 

Speaking prior to the escalation on 10 May from Shusha (Shushi), in an area of Nagorno-Karabakh that came under Azerbaijani control in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev described the country’s army as ‘among the strongest armies in the world’. 

‘Our army has fought, our army has shown its strength on the battlefield, not in a parade. During 44 days [in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War], not a single person took a step back, not a single person was a deserter. This is our army. This is our people.’