By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova
YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Azerbaijan accused Armenia on Wednesday of trying to attack its gas and oil pipelines and warned of a “severe” response as tensions rose sharply around a fraying ceasefire in the mountain enclave of Nagorno–Karabakh.
Armenia hit back by saying Azeri forces wanted to seize control of the tiny territory in the South Caucasus, which is governed by ethnic Armenians, and accused Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey of “aggression” despite Saturday’s ceasefire deal.
The angry rhetoric prompted Russia to appeal again for both sides to observe the humanitarian ceasefire in Nagorno–Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
But Moscow and Turkey also exchanged recriminations over the fighting that has killed more than 500 people since Sept. 27.
Fears are growing that the two big regional powers could be sucked into a conflict that is being fought close to Azeri pipelines which carry gas and oil to international markets. https://tmsnrt.rs/2SLS5ID
“Armenia is trying to attack and take control of our pipelines,” Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster Haberturk.
“If Armenia tries to take control of the pipelines there, I can say that the outcome will be severe for them,” he said.
Azerbaijan‘s defence ministry said separately that it would destroy all military facilities in Armenia that targeted Azeri civilian locations.
The Armenian defence ministry has denied firing on civilian targets, but said it reserved the right to target any military installations and combat movements in Azerbaijan.
It said on Wednesday that the Azeri side had opened fire towards the territory of Armenia and destroyed military equipment.
In a televised speech after Aliyev spoke, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the situation in the conflict area was “very difficult” and that Azerbaijan and Turkey did not want “to stop their aggression”.
Azerbaijan was trying to occupy Nagorno–Karabakh, he said, using similar language to Azeri leaders who say Armenian forces are occupying the territory.
NEW CEASEFIRE VIOLATIONS
The fighting in one of the former Soviet Union’s “frozen conflicts” is the worst since a 1991-94 war in which about 30,000 people were killed as the enclave broke away from Azerbaijan. https://tmsnrt.rs/30GEXJd
Azerbaijan has greater firepower than the Armenian forces and says it has made territorial gains since the latest fighting broke out on Sept. 27. Nagorno–Karabakh has acknowledged some setbacks but says the situation is “under control”.
The ceasefire, brokered by Russia, was meant to allow the sides to swap prisoners and bodies of those killed, but the continued fighting has hindered those efforts.
The Kremlin and the Russian defence and foreign ministers issued new appeals for Azerbaijan and Armenia to observe the ceasefire as it buckled on Wednesday.
Russia has, with the United States and France, long led mediation over Nagorno–Karabakh by the OSCE security watchdog’s “Minsk Group”. Moscow has a defence pact with Armenia and is worried by Turkey and Azerbaijan suggesting the conflict could be solved militarily.
“We do not agree with the position voiced by Turkey, that was also expressed several times by President Aliyev,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Lavrov said it would be right to deploy Russian military observers on Nagorno–Karabakh‘s line of contact, which separates the two sides, but that it was up to Azerbaijan and Armenia to decide.
Despite criticism from NATO allies of its stance in the conflict, Turkey reiterated its support for Azerbaijan.
In a speech to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party in parliament, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the Minsk Group was stalling in dealing with the conflict, and said Nagorno–Karabakh must be given back to Azerbaijan.
Erdogan also denied media reports that Turkey has sent Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan.
(Additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by Margarita Antidze and Timothy Heritage, Editing by William Maclean and Catherine Evans)