BAKU/YEREVAN -- Russia, France, and the United States have reiterated their call for an immediate cease-fire in and around the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, saying the escalating conflict represented an "unacceptable threat" to the region's stability.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the call in a joint statement on October 5 as fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continued to rage with both sides shelling major cities amid growing concerns for the safety of civilians.
Lavrov, Le Drian, and Pompeo, whose countries are the co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has spearheaded peace efforts over Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s, condemned "in the strongest terms the unprecedented and dangerous escalation of violence."
The ministers "stress unconditionally that recent attacks allegedly targeting civilian centers - both along the Line of Contact and on the territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia outside the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone - and the disproportionate nature of such attacks constitute an unacceptable threat to the stability of the region."
They also urged the sides to accept an "immediate and unconditional" cease-fire and to "commit now to resuming the settlement process" under the auspices of the Minsk Group.
The conflicting parties have ignored a similar plea made by the president of Russia, France, and the United States on October 1.
Ethnic Armenian separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh on October 5 reported firefights along the front line, with the regional capital, Stepanakert, under heavy artillery fire for the fourth day in a row.
Firefights "of various intensity...continue to rage" in the conflict zone, Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian said on Facebook on October 5.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said Armenian forces were shelling the country's second-largest city, Ganca, for a second day in a significant escalation of the conflict beyond the separatist region. The ministry said the fire was coming from the Berd region in northeastern Armenia.
The ministry also accused Armenian forces of shelling the towns of Tartar, Barda, and Beylagan.
Armenia's Defense Ministry has denied targeting Azerbaijani territory, but the de facto leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutiunian, said his forces had targeted a military base in Ganca and that he later ordered a halt to the strikes to avoid civilian casualties.
Each side has accused the other of targeting civilians as fighting in the long-simmering dispute over the territory shows no signs of abating since it flared up with renewed intensity on September 27.
Increasing shelling and rocket fire targeting urban areas has raised concerns of mass civilian casualties.
The two sides have reported 244 deaths since the fighting erupted, including 60 civilians, but the actual toll is expected to be much higher as both sides are claiming to have inflicted heavy military casualties.
The International Red Cross on October 4 condemned reports of “indiscriminate shelling and other alleged unlawful attacks using explosive weaponry in cities, towns, and other populated areas.”
On October 4, Azerbaijan said that, late in the evening, three missiles had targeted the city of Mingacevir, located 100 kilometers from the front line and home to a strategic hydroelectric power plant and the biggest dam in Caucasus region.
Authorities said one rocket injured five civilians, while two others did not explode.
Two other rockets were said to have reached the Xizi and Abseron districts, both near the capital, Baku.
Armenia's Defense Ministry denied claims that any missiles were fired from its territory on Ganca, Mingacevir, or other cities.
Azerbaijan on October 4 claimed to have wounded Harutiunian in retaliation for the attack on Ganca, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported.
Hikmat Haciyev, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, said Harutiunian was hiding in a bunker and was wounded in a targeted attack. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
Both sides in the conflict regularly exaggerate losses inflicted on their opponent as part of a parallel information war.
In a fiery televised speech on the evening of October 4, Aliyev issued a set of demands to halt the fighting that would be nearly impossible for Armenia to accept.
Azerbaijan's strongman president demanded that Armenia set a timetable for withdrawing from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories, saying that Azerbaijan would not end military action until that happened.
Aliyev said Azerbaijani forces were advancing in a weeklong offensive to retake territories that they lost to ethnic Armenians in the 1990s. Azerbaijan’s military says it has retaken control of seven villages since fighting erupted.
"Azerbaijan has one condition, and that is the liberation of its territories," he said. "Nagorno-Karabakh is the territory of Azerbaijan. We must return and we shall return."
Yerevan rejected Aliyev's demands, which were also reiterated by Turkey, Azerbaijan closest regional ally.
World powers have been calling for a cease-fire amid concerns that the violence could grow into a full-blown war between the archfoes, potentially further drawing in regional powers Russia and NATO-member Turkey.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun spoke separately to the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers on October 5 to "express deep concern over reports of the escalation of military action and expanding theater of operations" in the conflict, according to the State Department.
Armenia has said it was willing to engage in peace talks through the OSCE.
However, Olesya Vartanyan from the International Crisis Group told RFE/RL that, for the time being, the conflict appears to be intensifying and engulfing even more civilian areas.
"The fighting is continuously escalating with more attacks [on] the civilian areas and more advanced weaponry being used," Vartanyan said, adding that "the spread of fighting to the areas located far from the front line is what we are to continue seeing in the coming days."
During a visit to Ankara on October 5, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for a cease-fire and said he expected Turkey to use its "considerable" influence to calm the conflict.
"We are deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities. All sides should immediately cease fighting and find a way forward towards a peaceful resolution," Stoltenberg said following talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Cavusoglu said NATO should approach the escalation "in a balanced fashion," adding: "Everyone, particularly NATO, should call on Armenia to withdraw."
Meanwhile, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Israel was prepared to send Armenia humanitarian aid, hoping to smooth bilateral relations strained by Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan.
Yerevan recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations last week.
Speaking by telephone with his Armenian counterpart, Armen Sarkisian, Rivlin said that Israel's relations with Azerbaijan are "not aimed against any side," his office said.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over the mountainous region since the waning years of the Soviet Union. They fought a war that ended in 1994 with an uneasy cease-fire and an estimated 30,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.