Why Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting, and why it could get uglier

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Moscow — Dozens of people have reportedly been killed and hundreds more wounded since fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia just over a week ago. The two countries’ military forces are clashing over the Azerbaijani breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and with some major world powers backing opposing sides in the standoff — and the U.S. notably absent — there are concerns the conflict could escalate.International observers and analysts warn that, unlike during previous clashes along the two countries’ shared border, it may be hard to negotiate peace this time, not least because NATO member Turkey has backed Azerbaijan and the United States appears uninterested in playing the vital role of arbiter.

Officials on both sides claim to have inflicted serious losses on the other’s. Both sides claim the other has killed civilians, including new reports Monday by officials in Azerbaijan that the city of Ganja, home to more than 330,000 people, was being shelled by Armenian forces.

APTOPIX Armenia Azerbaijan
Shrapnel holes in a car as a building burns in the background after shelling by Azerbaijan’s artillery during a military conflict in self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, Azerbaijan, October 4, 2020. KARO SAHAKYAN/ARMGOV PAN PHOTO/AP

Videos posted online from the battleground show an unprecedented use of heavy artillery, tanks, missiles, and even kamikaze drones as the fighting has escalated. Both countries accuse the other of refusing to agree to cease fire, and neither has shown any willingness yet to reengage in stalled peace talks.

What is behind the dispute?

Armenia and Azerbaijan both used to be part of the Soviet Union, but since that crumbled, the new borders in the Caucasus region have remained in dispute.

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh on outline map
The breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan, is seen in red. GETTY/ISTOCKPHOTO

When Soviet Communist rule was nearing its end in the late 1980s, the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomous legislature voted to join Armenia. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed its independence, which led to a war with tens of thousands of casualties. It has not been recognized by any other country as an independent state

Internationally still recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.

The long-simmering conflict has been mediated by the “Minsk group,” set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1994 and co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States.

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