September 28, 2015 / 1:35 PM / 3 years ago

Fatal clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia-backed Karabakh stir tension

BAKU/YEREVAN (Reuters) - Azerbaijan and the Armenia-backed breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday bickered about how many of their soldiers had been killed in clashes which have stoked fears of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus.

Violence erupted last week with both sides accusing one other of starting the trouble, of using heavy weapons, and of killing each other’s soldiers in an area that is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines.

In an account that was disputed, Armenia said Azeri forces had also attacked several villages near the border between the two former Soviet republics, killing three civilians.

On Monday, the Azeri defense ministry said three of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting, and that seven Armenian-backed soldiers from Karabakh had also been killed with many more wounded.

That assertion was challenged by the ministry of defense in Nagorno-Karabakh. It said that more than 10 Azeri soldiers had been killed and several more wounded, denying it had suffered any casualties.

Nagorno-Karabakh has run its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia since a separatist war ended in 1994. Armenian-backed forces hold seven Azeri districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.

The original conflict 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 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Friday appealed to both sides to halt the violence.

Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Osborn

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