BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) – Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces fought new clashes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday, while plans to hold talks in Moscow raised hopes of ending the deadliest battles in the South Caucasus for more than 25 years.
The Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers were expected to attend the Moscow talks later on Friday, a day after France, Russia and the United States launched a concerted drive for peace at a meeting in Geneva.
“We are moving towards a truce soon even if the situation is still fragile,” French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said after he spoke to the Armenian and Azeri leaders.
The Armenian government said Friday’s talks would focus on a cessation of hostilities and exchanges of bodies and prisoners of war.
Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, said Ankara also wanted a diplomatic solution but that peace moves would succeed only if they ensured a withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, where fighting broke out on Sept. 27.
Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but broke away in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed and is populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.
“It is almost certain to fail if it doesn’t also involve a detailed plan to end the occupation,” Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told Al Jazeera.
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More than 400 people have been killed in the renewed fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that has raised fears of a wider conflict drawing in Turkey and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on Friday Nagorno-Karabakh was on the verge of a “humanitarian disaster”. The violence has also increased concern about the security of pipelines in Azerbaijan that take natural gas and oil to Europe.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said there had been fierce clashes with ethnic Armenian forces along the line of contact that divides the two sides on Friday and that several areas deep in Azerbaijan had come under fire.
Stepanakert, the city ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh consider the capital of an independent state, was shelled, the enclave’s defence ministry said. Armenia denied its forces had attacked locations deeper in Azerbaijan on Friday.
Fighting has continued despite the talks in Geneva on Thursday, details of which have not been released.
Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov agreed to attend the Geneva talks with French, U.S. and Russian envoys.
Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan took no part but was expected to meet officials from the three powers in Moscow on Monday.
Washington, Paris and Moscow have led mediation over Nagorno-Karabakh for almost three decades as co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group. A ceasefire has been violated repeatedly since the end of a 1991-94 war that killed about 30,000 people.
Azerbaijan said on Thursday that 31 Azeri civilians had been killed and 164 wounded since Sept. 27. It has not disclosed information about military casualties.
Nagorno-Karabakh said on Friday 376 of its military personnel and 22 civilians had been killed since Sept. 27.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s main demand for a ceasefire is for Armenia to set a timetable for a withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azeri territories.
Armenia has ruled out a withdrawal from territory it considers its historic homelands. It has also accused Turkey of military involvement in the conflict and sending in mercenaries, allegations denied by Ankara.
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