BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) - One Azeri soldier and four troops from the Armenian-backed breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region have been killed in border clashes, the Azeri defense ministry said on Saturday.
The Azeri defense ministry accused Armenia of provoking the confrontation but Armenia said on Friday that Azeri forces had attacked several villages near the border between the two former Soviet republics, killing three civilians.
Clashes around Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies inside Azerbaijan but is controlled by a majority of ethnic Armenians, are stoking fears of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus, which is crossed by oil and gas pipelines.
Nagorno-Karabakh has run its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia since a separatist war ended in 1994. Its Armenian-backed forces hold seven Azeri districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.
One Azeri soldier was killed and three were wounded in the clashes, the Azeri defense ministry said in its statement.
“Responsibility for escalation of tension at the frontline is on Armenia’s political and military leadership,” the ministry said.
The Nagorno-Karabakh ministry of defense said on Friday that four of its soldiers had died and several were wounded as a result of artillery shelling and gunfire from the Azeri forces.
Armenia’s defense ministry accused Azerbaijan of stoking the conflict. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan say the other side has been using heavy weapons.
“In order to quiet and deter the adversary ... Armenia’s armed forces will hereafter apply adequate artillery and rocket striking means, continuously targeting permanent deployment areas, military movements, military equipment and manpower,” the ministry said in a statement.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the dying years of the Soviet Union and has killed about 30,000 people. Efforts to reach a permanent settlement have failed despite mediation led by France, Russia and the United States.
Oil-producing Azerbaijan, host to global oil companies including BP Plc, Chevron Corp and ExxonMobil Corp, frequently threatens to take the mountain region back by force, and is spending heavily on its armed forces.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appealed to the sides to avoid civilian casualties.
Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky