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Armenian soldiers killed by Azerbaijani fire in biggest skirmish since exodus

Armenian soldiers killed by Azerbaijani fire in biggest skirmish since exodus
Cars line up as Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh travel to cross the border with Azerbaijan near the village of Kornidzor, Armenia, 29 September 2023. Azerbaijan on 19 September 2023 launched a brief military offensive on the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway enclave that is home to some 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Following a ceasefire agreed on 20 September 2023, Azerbaijan opened all checkpoints with Armenia for the unimpeded exit of civilians from the disputed territory. The Armenian government announced the evacuation of more than 85,000 local residents from Nagorno-Karabakh, and a humanitarian center has been set up in the village of Kornidzor near the so-called Lachin corridor, the main route between Armenia and the breakaway region. Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist as a self-proclaimed state from 01 January 2024, the region's separatist leader, Samvel Shakhramanyan, announced on 28 September, after signing a decree to dissolve all its institutions. EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV

TBILISI/BAKU, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Armenia said on Tuesday that four of its soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani fire along the heavily militarized border, the first fatal incident since they began negotiating a deal to end more than 30 years of intermittent war last year.

  • Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of killing 4 soldiers, hurting 1
  • Azerbaijan says Armenia fired at its positions previous evening
  • Peace talks to end decades-old conflict stagnating

By Felix Light and Nailia Bagirova

Fatal exchanges have been common along the closed, roughly 1,000 km (621 mile) frontier since 1988 when Armenia and Azerbaijan first went to war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the situation had calmed amid peace talks in recent months.

Tuesday’s incident was the biggest since hundreds died when Azerbaijan retook Karabakh in September, prompting an exodus of the region’s ethnic Armenian population.

Armenia’s Defence Ministry said in a statement that the four soldiers had been killed and another was wounded at a combat post near the southern Armenian village of Nerkin Hand.

Azerbaijan’s border service said in a statement that it had staged a “a revenge operation” for a “provocation” it said Armenian forces had committed the day before.

“The military and political leadership of Armenia is fully responsible for the incident,” it said, adding that future provocations would face more serious measures.

Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry said Armenian forces on Monday evening fired at Baku’s positions along a northwestern section of the border, around 400 km (250 miles) from Nerkin Hand. Armenia denied the incident.

In a statement, Armenian ambassador-at-large Edmon Marukyan accused Azerbaijan of “criminal, aggressive behaviour”, and said Baku wanted a pretext to attack Armenian forces.

PEACE TALKS STAGNATE

The Kremlin, which is formally allied to Armenia but also has close ties with Azerbaijan, called for restraint on both sides. A Russian peacekeeping contingent remains in Karabakh and its border guards help patrol Armenia’s frontiers.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan had a mostly ethnic Armenian population which won de facto independence after a lengthy war during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Azerbaijan in September retook Karabakh in a lightning offensive, prompting a rapid exodus of almost all of the territory’s 120,000 Armenians, and a renewed push from both sides for a deal to end the conflict.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have said they want to sign a peace treaty, but disagree over issues including precise demarcation of their border and control over several small territorial enclaves.

Azerbaijan also wants a customs-free transport corridor through Armenian territory, connecting Azerbaijan’s mainland with its Nakhichevan exclave. Armenia has said it must retain control over any transport links on its soil.

Talks have in recent months appeared to stagnate, with both sides accusing the other of sabotaging the diplomatic process.

(Reporting by Felix Light in Tbilisi, Nailia Bagirova in Baku and Dmitry Antonov in Moscow; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Cawthorne)

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