Despite a lull in fighting overnight, tensions remain high on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan after days of skirmishes and a threat from Baku that it is capable of targeting nuclear power stations.
Armenia's Defense Ministry said on July 17 that the situation along the northeastern part of the border was "relatively calm" through the night, and that Armenian Armed Forces were "firmly in control of the situation along the entire border."
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry says that tensions boiled over after the Armenian military attempted an artillery attack on Azerbaijan’s positions along the border on July 12. According to the ministry, 11 military servicemen have been killed.
The Armenian Defense Ministry, in turn, has blamed a breakthrough attempt by the Azerbaijani army on the border. According to Armenia, four of its troops have been killed and ten suffered wounds.
Despite the relative calm over the past 24 hours, Azerbaijan on July 16 issued a statement that reflected the potential for the conflict's escalation, warning it could strike Armenia's nuclear power plant if Armenian forces launched an attack on a strategic water reservoir in Azerbaijan.
“The Armenian side must not forget that the state-of-the-art missile systems our army has are capable of launching a precision strike on the Metsamor nuclear power plant, and that would be a huge tragedy for Armenia,” Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Vagif Dargyakhly said in the statement.
Armenia's Soviet-built nuclear power plant is located close to the border with Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.
Armenian military spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said Armenia had brought the Azerbaijani statement to the attention of its international partners and expects them to strongly condemn it.
He added that Armenian officials have never made threats to strike civilian facilities in Azerbaijan.
Armenia's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, denounced the Azerbaijani threat as “genocidal.”
Earlier on July 16, the Armenian military claimed to have thwarted a pre-dawn Azerbaijani raid on one of its border posts in the northeastern Tavush district.
“After a fierce gun battle the enemy was repelled, suffering casualties,” Stepanian said, adding that Azerbaijani forces then began shelling two Armenian border villages with mortars and howitzers.
Stepanian also claimed that Armenian forces destroyed an Azerbaijani tank and struck “artillery and mortar positions that were shelling our settlements and positions.”
Stepanian also said that Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan talked to Andrzej Kasprzyk, the head of an OSCE mission monitoring the cease-fire in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, briefing him on the latest escalation.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry on July 16 accused Armenian forces of attacking its frontline troops and shelling Azerbaijani villages in the Tovuz district bordering Tavush. It gave no details.
The two neighbors fought a war in 1988-1994 over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan were seized by Armenian-backed separatists who declared independence amid a 1988-1994 conflict that killed at least 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Since a fragile, Russian-brokered truce in 1994, the region has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Azerbaijan says include troops supplied by Armenia. The region's claim to independence has not been recognized by any country.
Since then, periodic skirmishes have taken place in the region.
Russia, the United States, and France are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which acts as a mediator in resolving the crisis. The group has been struggling for years to mediate a solution.
On July 15, the Minsk Group urged the parties to “make every effort to continue de-escalation.”
"The Co-Chairs welcomed the confirmation of the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to hold substantive negotiations on crucial aspects of a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement as soon as possible and emphasized the importance of returning OSCE monitors to the region as soon as circumstances allow," said the statement issued late on July 15.
In a joint statement on July 17, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), ranking member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Cory Booker (Democrat-New Jersey), urged "a stop to the fighting" along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and an "immediate resumption of peace talks."
The two senators also accused Azerbaijan of having chosen "a path of violence instead of the peaceful, negotiated process spearheaded by the OSCE Minsk Group," and called on the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to "immediately halt" U.S. military assistance to the Azerbaijani government.
"Providing nearly $120 million in security assistance to a regime that flouts a peace process cochaired by the U.S. is absurd," according to Menendez and Booker.