(Bloomberg) -- Azerbaijan began a military operation to take control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, prompting international condemnation of the most serious escalation since a war with neighboring Armenia that killed thousands three years ago.
The Azerbaijani army on Tuesday started a “local anti-terrorist operation” aimed at destroying Armenian military positions in the disputed territory and “restoring the constitutional order,” the Defense Ministry in Baku said on its website. Russian peacekeeping troops who are in Nagorno-Karabakh following the 2020 war have been notified of the action, the ministry said.
The crisis sparked an immediate diplomatic reaction. France requested an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and Russia called for a halt to the fighting. Turkey, which has a defense pact with Azerbaijan, held talks with its ally.
Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has a majority Armenian population, declared independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago. Azerbaijan took back part of the region and seven surrounding districts during six weeks of fighting in 2020 before Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a truce deal and deployed almost 2,000 troops to maintain peace.
Armenia’s dollar debt posted some of the biggest losses in emerging markets on Tuesday, with bonds due in 2029 and 2031 each falling by about 1.3 cent on the dollar as of 4:07 p.m. in London. The country on Monday invited bondholders to tender some of the notes due in 2025 for a cash buyback, saying the move was aimed at taking advantage of its “robust liquidity position” and to reduce overall indebtedness.
Russia is “really concerned” about the outbreak of violence and wants to ensure the safety of the civilian Armenian population, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, the state-run Tass news service reported. He urged a return to the truce deal and said Russian military officials were in contact with both sides.
Pashinyan also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to the premier’s office. France’s Foreign Ministry said it was working with US and European partners on a strong response to Azerbaijan’s “unacceptable offensive,” adding that it held Baku “solely responsible for the fate of the civilian population” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The European Union called on Azerbaijan to stop the offensive, warning that it “should not be used as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population.”
A senior US State Department official said Blinken had worked intensively to try to secure a lasting resolution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which made the latest military action particularly egregious and dangerous. The US would be in contact with all sides, the official said.
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The US and the EU have mediated peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 2020 war without reaching an agreement. They pressed Baku to end a blockade of the Lachin corridor, Nagorno-Karabakh’s only road link to Armenia, that lasted nearly nine months until aid trucks entered the region’s capital, Stepanakert, on Monday.
“Baku’s promise to refrain from military action was broken,” amid EU and US efforts to de-escalate the situation, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said. “Azerbaijan must immediately stop shelling and return to the negotiating table.”
Acting US Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim told a Senate hearing last week that the US “will not countenance any action or effort — short-term or long-term — to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Azerbaijan said its forces were attacking military installations and weren’t targeting civilian areas. The Defense Ministry said “humanitarian corridors” were being opened on the Lachin road and other routes from Nagorno-Karabakh to allow “the evacuation of the population from the danger zone.”
Five people were killed and at least 80 injured in the shelling, which struck residential buildings and infrastructure, according to the Nagorno-Karabakh health ministry. Stepanakert is under “mass artillery fire,” Ruben Vardanyan, the former Moscow investment banker who briefly headed the local administration, said from the city in a message on Telegram.
Azerbaijan earlier Tuesday said seven police officers and two civilians were killed in landmine blasts that it blamed on Armenians before beginning the offensive. A construction worker in the town of Shusha was killed by Armenian mortar fire, it said.
Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh must “dissolve and disarm,” Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said on social media. The rights and security of the civilian Armenian population “will be provided under the Constitution and international obligations of Azerbaijan,” he said.
Armenia rejected Azerbaijan’s assertion that units of its military were in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying none were present there. The situation along the republic’s border with Azerbaijan is also relatively calm, the Defense Ministry in Yerevan said in a statement.
Azerbaijan’s missile and artillery strikes along the entire line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh were an attempt to draw Armenia into the fighting, Pashinyan told a meeting of his security council. Armenia isn’t involved in the hostilities and “we won’t take rash actions,” he said.
--With assistance from Sara Khojoyan.
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