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Azerbaijan/Armenia: Karabakh Shootout Exposes Ceasefire's Fragility

Yerevan, 16 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - The skirmish earlier this week between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along Nagorno-Karabakh's border demonstrates the shakiness of the ceasefire that stopped the bloodiest war in the former Soviet Union five years ago.

Tensions increased in the disputed region following statements from each of the conflicting parties accusing the other of provoking Monday's attack, which left at least two dead and several wounded.

However, observers in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, today downplayed the fighting, citing similar incidents in the past, facilitated by the absence of an international peacekeeping force in the Armenian-populated region.

Still, the incident seems to have caused jitters in some Western capitals, raising the specter of a renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani war. In an indication of Washington's serious concern, the U.S. State Department yesterday urged the conflicting parties to observe the ceasefire regime. A State Department spokesman warned that "any incidents in this volatile area carry the potential for renewed hostilities."

The prospect of renewed hostilities cannot be encouraging for Western nations mindful of the future of multi-billion-dollar oil contracts signed with Azerbaijan and other Caspian nations. What is projected to be the main pipeline transporting Azerbaijani oil to world markets passes less than 50 kilometers from the Karabakh frontline.

The absence of information from independent sources makes it difficult to establish the real picture of what happened on Monday along the northeastern section of Karabakh's border.

Azerbaijan said two of its soldiers were killed and four others wounded when their positions were attacked by Karabakh Armenian forces. It said the four-hour assault was beaten back.

The Karabakh Armenians offer a dramatically different version of the incident, saying that Azerbaijani army units tried to "bring their positions close to the (self-proclaimed) Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's frontier" but were forced to retreat after sustaining heavy casualties. The Stepanakert government said two Karabakh soldiers were wounded in the fighting.

The Karabakh authorities also said they will ask the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) today to urgently send a monitoring team to the Armenian-Azerbaijani division line.

A Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement -- signed by the warring sides in May 1994 -- has largely held, despite sporadic outbreaks of fighting. The truce left Karabakh Armenians -- backed by Armenia proper -- in control of the disputed enclave and surrounding Azerbaijani districts. More than 30,000 people are believed to have died in the bitter war that preceded the ceasefire.

Monday's skirmish was the most serious incident since 1997. Manvel Sarkisian, an analyst for the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), said ceasefire violations occur from time to time. He said there is no indication that the latest clash is a sign of an imminent war. He said large-scale hostilities are usually preceded by major troop movements, something which is impossible to independently establish on the ground. The Armenian and Azerbaijan recriminations, Sarkisian argued, are just a propaganda ploy.

Aleksandr Arzumanian, Armenia's former foreign minister, told RFE/RL that the lack of progress in Karabakh is conducive to periodical skirmishes on the frontline. He said the longer the deadlock in peace talks, the higher the likelihood of a renewed war.

The OSCE's Minsk Group, which leads international efforts to broker a peace deal for Karabakh, can boast few achievements so far. The group is co-chaired by Russia, the U.S. and France. Its most recent peace plan -- put forward last November -- has not yet got off the ground.

Arzumanian believes the main challenge for mediators is to come up with a face-saving solution acceptable to both the Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Karabakh broke away from Baku's rule in the late 1980s and has since enjoyed de-facto independence, even though it is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Karabakh Armenians say they are ready to forego outright independence but want their future relationship with Azerbaijan to be on equal footing.

The OSCE plan appears to address this demand by calling for Azerbaijan and Karabakh to form a "common state." The Armenian side has largely approved the formula, while Azerbaijan has rejected it. Some mediators have signaled their readiness to make minor amendments in the peace proposals to accommodate Baku. A senior U.S. diplomat touring Armenia and Azerbaijan last month said Washington is ready to redouble its efforts to hammer out a peace accord.

It is still unknown when the Minsk Group co-chairs will launch a new round of shuttle diplomacy. Observers say settlement of the Kosovo crisis may bring more international attention to Karabakh.

Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan are due to meet next week in Luxembourg. The ACNIS's Sarkisian said he does not expect a breakthrough from the meeting because the conflicting parties cannot be expected to budge on key issues overnight.

In Sarkisian's words: "The conflict has been frozen, and this status quo seems to satisfy everybody for the time being."