Moscow, 1 October 2020 (dpa/MIA) – The United States, Russia and France condemned the escalation of violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and called for an immediate ceasefire in a joint statement on Thursday.
“We deplore the loss of human lives and extend our condolences to the families of those killed and injured. We call for an immediate cessation of hostilities between the relevant military forces,” said the statement, attributed to the US, Russian and French presidents.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been engaged in intense fighting in recent days over Nagorno-Karabakh, held by Christian Armenian forces for decades but internationally considered part of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan.
More than 100 people, including several civilians, have been reported killed in the flare-up, which began on Sunday. It is the bloodiest fighting between the two neighbouring, former Soviet countries in the past four years.
The US, Russia and France “condemn in the strongest terms the recent escalation of violence along the line of contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone,” the statement said.
They called for Azerbaijan and Armenia to “commit without delay to resuming substantive negotiations, in good faith and without preconditions, under the auspices of the OSCE,” referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Russian and French officials expressed concern earlier on Thursday over reports that mercenaries have been sent to the Caucasus to fight in the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron discussed the issue during a recent phone call, a source in Macron’s office said.
They are both concerned about “Turkey’s sending of Syrian mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh,” the French source said. Turkey and Azerbaijan are close allies.
France has separately alleged that Azerbaijan initiated the recent flare-up in fighting with Armenia.
“I want to be very clear, on Sunday the strikes that were launched from Azerbaijan had to our knowledge no justification,” Macron said on Thursday.
He said he has “definite” information that Syrian fighters “from jihadist groups” have arrived in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone via Turkey, which is allied to Azerbaijan.
“This is a very grave new development,” Macron warned, saying that he has agreed with Putin and US President Donald Trump “to exchange all the information [they] have about this situation and draw all necessary conclusions.”
The French president, speaking on his way into an EU summit, also said that a plane was on stand-by to evacuate two French journalists who were injured while covering the conflict, once their condition stabilizes.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a separate statement that it had been informed of claims that mercenaries, sent from Libya and Syria, were involved in the fighting over the disputed territory.
The presence of such “illegal armed units” would pose a long-term security risk for all nearby countries, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
There have been allegations that such militants have been fighting on behalf of the Azerbaijani side. Russia’s statement did not directly mention Azerbaijan or Turkey.
Russia has said it does not believe accusations that the Turkish military is directly involved in the conflict, according to comments by Putin’s spokesperson on Thursday.
Armenia earlier this week accused Turkey of having shot down one of its warplanes in the conflict area, killing the pilot. Turkey rejected the claim.
Turkey has enlisted Syrian opposition militias against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and Macron previously accused it of having “massively imported jihadist fighters” from there to fight in Libya’s civil war.
Armenian forces said on Thursday that they had shot down an Azerbaijani helicopter that day in a southern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in the aircraft crashing in neighbouring Iran, a claim that Azerbaijan promptly denied.
“Because the hostilities unleashed by Azerbaijan are taking place very close to the border with Iran, unfortunately, such cases are inevitable,” the Armenian forces said in a statement.
An Azerbaijani military representative denied that Armenian forces had shot down one of its aircraft, according to comments carried by state media.
The recent fighting has raised concerns that the flare-up could escalate into an all-out war, as the combatants look to regional powers Turkey and Russia for support.
Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan by all means, but has so far denied direct involvement in the conflict. Russia, which maintains a military base in Armenia, has called for an immediate ceasefire.