Azerbaijan and the Armenian ethnic community fought fresh battles on Thursday before talks in which the United States, France, and Russia would negotiate how to achieve a truce and avoid a larger conflict in the South Caucasus.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov will meet with the U.S., Russian and French envoys in Geneva on Thursday, while Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan is scheduled to meet with officials from the three countries in Moscow on Monday.
The talks marked the beginning of a joint drive by the three powers to stop the fighting that erupted on September 27, creating questions about the safety of pipelines in Azerbaijan that ship natural gas and oil to Europe.
Washington, Paris, and Moscow are co-chairs of the Minsk Community Organization for Stability and Collaboration in Europe ( OSCE) which has led the mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh mountain enclave in decades of violence.
Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, but it is inhabited and controlled by ethnic Armenians who broke free in the 1991-94 war that killed some 30,000 civilians.
“The stance of the United States has been consistent and has not changed: both parties must urgently end hostilities and collaborate with the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Community to return to constructive talks as quickly as possible,” said the U.S. spokesperson in Geneva.
Hours before the talks were set to start, Azerbaijan said that the city of Ganja, deep within the former Soviet republic, had been occupied by the Armenian armies.
One civilian was killed in the Goranboy region of Azerbaijan and other villages and towns were shot by Armenian ethnic forces, he said.
The Azerbaijani authorities state that 30 civilians have been killed and 143 wounded since 27 September, but they have not released details about military casualties.
Nagorno-Karabakh reported that its main administrative center, Stepanakert, had been shelled and that 30 servicemen had been killed, bringing its military death toll to 350 since 27 September. It is said that 19 people have also been killed and several injured.
Following the latest news of the battle, Armenia announced that it had removed the director of its National Security Service by presidential decree. It didn’t offer any explanation.
Fears of a wider war
The war has raised foreign fears that Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a security treaty with Armenia, may be drawn into the war.
The warring parties have defied repeated demands for a truce and the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders have been at odds with their conditions for stopping the battle.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s main demand is for Armenia to set a timeline for the withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring Azerbaijani territory and for Turkey to be included in the peace process.
In an interview with Euronews, he said that Bayramov ‘s presence in the Geneva talks “shows who needs negotiations.”
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry refused demands for a unilateral truce, which it said: “hold the status quo on the basis of occupation.”
Armenia has ruled out removal from the territories it considers to be ancestral homelands. It also accused Turkey of military participation in the conflict and alleged that it had sent mercenaries, accusations refuted by Ankara.
“Our position has been and remains that the Karabakh problem can not be settled by violence,” said Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia to Euronews.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has accused the Minsk Community of neglecting the crisis for decades, said in Thursday’s reported comments that Ankara will continue to help “our Azerbaijani brothers with all our energy.”
“I renew my call to the international community to … Take measures to end Armenia’s colonization of Azerbaijani territory, “he told Qatar’s Peninsula newspaper.