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Report: Five Armenian Soldiers Killed Near Karabakh

BAKU (Reuters) -- Five Armenian soldiers have been killed in a clash with Azerbaijani forces near the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani media reported.

Azerbaijan's ANS Press news agency said the fight took place in the Agdam district, next to Nagorno-Karabakh, which threw off Azerbaijani rule in the early 1990s.

ANS initially reported four deaths but later said five were killed. A spokesman for the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry dismissed the report as "Azeri propaganda."

Tensions in the region are rising as Armenia and close Azerbaijan ally Turkey make progress toward opening their joint border and establishing diplomatic relations, angering Azerbaijan.

Agdam is one of seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and is held by Armenian forces.

Clashes are common between forces manning the front line. The last fatal exchange was in January, when Azerbaijan, which supplies oil and natural gas to the West, said it had killed three Armenian soldiers.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry declined to comment. Azerbaijan, its military budget swollen by petrodollars, has not ruled out taking back the region by force.

Christian ethnic Armenians, backed by Armenia, fought a war in the 1990s to end mainly Muslim Azerbaijan's control over mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh. An estimated 30,000 people were killed and a peace accord has never been reached.

Mediators from the United States, France, and Russia say they are close to a breakthrough in negotiations between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev.

Turkey closed its frontier with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan, which now fears losing leverage over Armenia in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh if the border is reopened.

Turkey and Armenia said last month they had agreed to establish diplomatic ties and open the border. Their presidents are due to sign the accords in mid-October, before submitting them to the Turkish and Armenian parliaments for approval.

Under the deal, the border should reopen within two months of ratification, possibly by New Year.