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Azerbaijan Says Three Soldiers Killed Near Rebel Region

BAKU (Reuters) -- Three Azerbaijani soldiers have been killed and one wounded recently in incidents near the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has said.

Two were killed by a land mine on February 20. Another died and one was wounded in weekend clashes with Armenian soldiers over their tense front line.

Ethnic-Armenian separatists, backed by Armenia, fought a war in the 1990s to throw off Azerbaijan's control over Nagorno- Karabakh. About 30,000 people were killed.

A fragile cease-fire is in force but a peace accord has never been signed and incidents are common.

The dispute is one of the most intractable and potentially explosive in a region vital for oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijani reserves in the Caspian Sea to Western Europe.

"As a result of violations of the cease-fire by the Armenian side, from February 19 to 22 three Azerbaijani soldiers died," an Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman told Reuters. Azerbaijani ANS television reported four had died and one was wounded.

Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto authorities reported "cease-fire violations," including sniper fire, through February 21, saying its soldiers had been forced to return fire. There were no Armenian casualties.

International mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said last month they hoped for an accord between Caucasus neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan in the near future.

Analysts say last year's war between Russia and Georgia, when Russia repelled a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia, has lent fresh impetus to mediation efforts on Nagorno-Karabakh.