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With Russia distracted in Ukraine, Azerbaijan launches attack on Armenian enclave

In this photo taken from video released by Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, smoke rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces' positions in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan via AP
In this photo taken from video released by Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, smoke rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces' positions in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

MOSCOW — Azerbaijan's military announced it has launched "localized anti-terrorist measures" after land mines killed four soldiers and two civilians early Tuesday in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The majority ethnic Armenian territory, located within Azerbaijan, has been the source of conflicts and wars between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the late Soviet period.

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Azerbaijan's defense ministry in the capital Baku blamed the deaths on "Armenian separatists" — a charge Armenia dismissed as a provocation.

A contingent of up to 2,000 Russian peacekeepers — installed after Moscow negotiated an end to large-scale hostilities in 2020 — has apparently not acted against Azerbaijan's current military offensive.

Azerbaijan has also benefited from military support from its traditional ally Turkey, which has increasingly filled a big-power void in the South Caucasus as Russia has focused its resources on the war in Ukraine.

Baku says the aim of the current mission, which began Tuesday, is to "disarm and remove" Armenian forces illegally operating inside the enclave and protect ethnic Azeris living in the region. Armenia's Defense Ministry denies its troops are operating in the area.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was "deeply concerned by Azerbaijan's military actions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls on Azerbaijan to cease these actions immediately. These actions are worsening an already dire humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and undermine prospects for peace. ... We call for an immediate end to hostilities and for respectful dialogue between Baku and representatives of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh."

Explosions and sirens were reported Tuesday in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital Stepanakert — with cell reception apparently down.

Azerbaijan's military said it was using "precision weapons" in carrying out air strikes. Former representatives from the self-declared government in Stepanakert claimed "mass shelling" had begun.

With Russia absorbed by its war in Ukraine, Armenia is reevaluating its reliance on Moscow for its security

In the Armenian capital Yerevan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gathered his security council to discuss the escalating conflict.

A demonstrator wearing a sticker with the flag of the Nagorno-Karabakh region raises his fist during a rally in central Yerevan, Armenia, Sept. 14.
Karen Minasyan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A demonstrator wearing a sticker with the flag of the Nagorno-Karabakh region raises his fist during a rally in central Yerevan, Armenia, Sept. 14.

Tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh have ebbed and flowed in recent months, as Western powers have increasingly usurped traditional Russian efforts to mediate a solution to the conflict.

On the one hand, there were signs of apparent progress: Western-backed peace talks earlier this year led the leadership in Yerevan to declare Armenia was ready to formally recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as belonging to Azerbaijan — provided security guarantees were offered to ethnic Armenians living there.

On the other hand, Baku has leveraged a partial blockade of humanitarian goods, growing military superiority and Russia's preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to dictate the terms of negotiations.

Russia's repeated failure to come to Armenia's aid despite a collective security agreement is also feeding a western drift in Yerevan.

A contingent of 85 U.S. troops are currently carrying out joint drills with Armenian forces near Yerevan under a 10-day NATO peacekeeping training mission.

Armenia's government has also voiced support for joining the International Criminal Court — a body that currently has a warrant out for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin over his actions in Ukraine.

Separately, Pashinyan has recently called Armenia's traditional reliance on Russia for its security "a strategic mistake."

"Armenia's security architecture was 99.999% linked to Russia, including when it came to the procurement of arms and ammunition," he said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblicaearlier this month.

"But today, we see that Russia itself is in need of weapons, arms and ammunition. And in this situation, it's understandable that even if it wishes so, the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia's security needs."

Reacting to the latest outbreak in fighting, Russia's foreign ministry called for both sides to return to a cease-fire and a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

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