Sixteen Azeri servicemen have been killed in the clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces around the Armenian-backed breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in the past two days, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday.
The clashes erupted on Friday night raising the death toll to 46.
Russia and the West have tried to call for an end to the fighting. Putin has sold weaponry to both sides but has far closer economic and military ties to Armenia. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a firm ally of Azerbaijan, insisted that the Armenian-controlled region would “one day” return to Baku’s control.
“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”.
The flare-up of a decades-old conflict showed no sign of abating.
Ex-Soviet states Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over the mountainous territory in the early 1990s in which thousands were killed on both sides and hundreds of thousands displaced.
A fragile truce ended the war in 1994, followed since by sporadic bouts of violence. The ceasefire was shattered over the weekend with the fiercest fighting in years, killing dozens of people on both sides.
Azerbaijan and Narogno-Karabakh, which has enjoyed strong military and financial support from Armenia, accused each other on Tuesday of escalating the violence.
“All responsibility for what is happening rests with Armenia which is not interested in resolving the conflict and flouts international law,” Azeri Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov told a regional meeting in the Azeri capital Baku.
The clashes, involving tanks, helicopters and artillery, are around the contact line, a heavily-mined no-man’s land that has since 1994 separated the Armenian-backed forces, in the foothills of the Karabakh mountains, from Azeri troops dug into defensive positions in the plains below.
In a statement, the armed forces of Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh said Azerbaijan “had been increasing the calibre of its weapons day by day”, and had used Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems on Monday night, shelling civilian settlements and military strongholds.
The Armenian Defense Ministry then said that it would deliver an “adequate strike” should Azerbaijan continue shelling Karabakh.
Meanwhile, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said his country would continue to provide safety for the people in Nagorny-Karabakh, and would recognize the region’s independence if military activities escalate in the area.
A return to war would destabilize a region that is a crossroads for strategically-important oil and gas pipelines.
It could also drag in the big regional powers, Russia and Turkey.
Envoys from France, Russia and the United States, joint mediators in the conflict, are to convene in Vienna on Tuesday for talks on the fighting.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area with a large ethnic Armenian population that lies inside the territory of Azerbaijan. The violence was an arousal of a long-festering ethnic conflict between the mainly Muslim Azeris and their Christian Armenian neighbors.