BAKU: Two ethnic Armenian troops died in fighting with Azerbaijani forces on Friday as the arch foes accused each other of breaching a ceasefire that halted the worst outbreak of violence in decades over a disputed breakaway region.

The latest clashes are the first serious violation of a Moscow-mediated ceasefire which took effect on Tuesday, ending several days of fighting over the Nagorno Karabakh region that claimed at least 90 lives.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev held talks with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on Thursday and Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev on Friday.

Armenia-backed separatists seized control of Nagorno Karabakh which lies inside Azerbaijan territory but is populated mainly by Christian ethnic Armenians, in the war that claimed some 30,000 lives.

The unrest has sparked concern of a wider conflict in the strategic area that could drag in regional powers Russia and Turkey.

“Azerbaijan violated a ceasefire overnight” using mortars to shell ethnic Armenian rebel positions in Karabakh, the separatist defence ministry said in a statement, adding that two soldiers were killed.

Armenia accused Azerbaijan of shelling both military and civilian targets on the border.

“The Armenian villages of Karmir, Ttudjur, and Baganis came under Azerbaijani fire,” defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said in a statement.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim former Soviet republic, said it returned fire after Armenian forces shelled its positions in Karabakh.

“Azerbaijani armed forces responded to Armenian artillery strikes,” defence ministry spokesman Vagif Dargahly said.

“Civilian targets (in Azerbaijan) were also shelled by the Armenian forces.” Azerbaijan’s defence ministry later said the sides had reached an agreement to restore a ceasefire regime from 3 pm.

It said the bodies of dead soldiers would be collected from the battlefield with the help of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Red Cross. At least 90 people from all sides, mainly servicemen, have been reported killed since a simmering feud exploded into fierce fighting in the early hours of April 2, prompting Russia and the West to call on the warring sides to agree an immediate truce.

Azerbaijan’s army claimed to have wrested back control of several strategic locations inside Armenian-controlled territory, effectively changing the frontline for the first time since an inconclusive truce ended a three-year war in 1994.

Armenia dismissed the claims as “untrue”.

The West — which is keen to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies — has vested interests in the stability of the Caucasus region which sends Caspian Sea oil and gas to European markets, bypassing Russia.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2016

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