Azerbaijan's defense ministry on Tuesday said it had begun an anti-terrorism operation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has been a focus of dispute between predominately Muslim Azerbaijan and mostly Christian Armenia for decades.
The ministry said the operation was launched to "disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia's armed forces from our territories and neutralize their military infrastructure."
Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of terrorism in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying a landmine explosion caused civilian deaths.
An Armenian human rights group says Azerbaijan's operation has killed 27 people, including two civilians, and injured over 200.
Long history of violence
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its inhabitants are mostly ethnic Armenian. The region, which both countries claim, has long been a focal point of conflict.
Full-scale fighting broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991. The two countries agreed to a ceasefire in 1994 but tensions remained high.
Clashes erupted again in 2016 and another war broke out in 2020, causing over 5,600 deaths. In September 2022, the two sides accused each other of launching attacks that caused many casualties.
Russia backs Armenia and has served as a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. It brokered the ceasefire that ended the war in 2020. But Russia's invasion of Ukraine appears to have weakened its influence.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday said the important thing is to persuade Armenia and Azerbaijan to sit down at the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Turkey supports Azerbaijan, with which it shares ethnic and cultural ties.
In a Tuesday speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan's territory and he cannot accept claims to the contrary. He expressed his full support of Azerbaijan's military operations.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the military escalation. He called on the two sides to return to dialogue and urged Azerbaijan to immediately cease its hostile acts and military activities.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it strongly condemned Azerbaijan's launch of a military operation involving the use of heavy weapons. It said unilateral action cannot be justified under any pretext and called on Azerbaijan to halt its attack and return to a position of respecting international law. It also called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday held separate telephone talks with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
The US State Department said Blinken called for an immediate halt to military action in his conversation with Aliyev, saying there can be no solution by force and dialogue between the two sides must be resumed. In response, Aliyev reportedly expressed his readiness to halt military action.
In his conversation with Pashinyan, Blinken reportedly expressed deep concern and said, "the United States fully supports Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity."
Protest in Armenian capital
Reuters news agency and Russian media report a large number of citizens in the Armenian capital Yerevan staged protests against the fighting. They surrounded government buildings as well as the Russian embassy.
Reuters says the protesters took to the streets to demand a halt to the fighting. Some protesters said they were truly shocked while others said the United Nations should pressure Azerbaijan. One protester said it was clear the Russian peacekeeping forces were doing nothing.
Some protesters clashed with police. Russian media quoted the health ministry as saying 34 people, including 16 police officers, were injured.