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Azerbaijan Captures Six Armenian Soldiers In Latest Border Incident

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Armenian soldiers take up positions on the border with Azerbaijan on May 17.

Azerbaijani forces have captured six Armenian servicemen amid growing border tensions between the two South Caucasus neighbors after last year's war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, prompting calls from Washington for both sides to "urgently and peacefully" resolve the issue.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said the Armenian soldiers were seized in Azerbaijan's Kalbacar district early on May 27 as they tried to cross the border to place mines on supply routes leading to Azerbaijani Army positions on the border.

The Defense Ministry later said a military vehicle in the Kalbajar district hit a mine near the Armenian border without providing additional information. There were no official reports of casualties.

Armenia’s Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian told a cabinet meeting that the six "abducted" servicemen were planting mines to strengthen the border on Armenian territory and installing warning signs. He rejected Azerbaijan’s claim that the Armenian troops' action was a provocation.

Pashinian suggested that both Armenian and Azerbaijani troops pull back from the disputed border and international observers monitor the area pending a border demarcation agreement.

"If the situation is not resolved this provocation could inevitably lead to a large-scale clash," he said.

However, the Armenian Defense Ministry said that its six soldiers were captured while carrying out engineering work in the border area of Armenia's Gegharkunik region.

"Necessary measures are being taken to return the captured servicemen," the ministry added.

Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian later told a cabinet meeting that the six "abducted" servicemen were planting mines to strengthen the border on Armenian territory and installing warning signs.

Earlier this week, Yerevan and Baku blamed each other for border shoot-outs that Armenia said claimed the life of one of its soldiers.

The U.S. State Department voiced concern about the border incidents, including the detention of several Armenian soldiers by Baku.

"We call on both sides to urgently and peacefully resolve this incident. We also continue to call on Azerbaijan to release immediately all prisoners of war and other detainees, and we remind Azerbaijan of its obligations under international humanitarian law to treat all detainees humanely," it said in a statement on May 27.

Armenia had previously accused Azerbaijani troops of crossing several kilometers into its Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces and trying to stake a claim to territory. Azerbaijan insisted that its troops simply took up positions on the Azerbaijani side of the frontier that were not accessible in winter months.

In a statement on May 27, the Armenian Foreign Ministry accused Azerbaijan's military and political leadership of "inflammatory activities" aimed at "further exacerbating tensions, which can seriously undermine regional peace and stability."

Two days earlier, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry accused Armenia of “deliberately fueling tensions…in the border zone” by disseminating “lies.”

The border tensions erupted months after the two South Caucasus neighbors ended a six-week war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflict, which claimed at least 6,900 lives, ended in November with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire that saw Armenia ceding swaths of territory that ethnic Armenians had controlled for decades.

The truce is being monitored by some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians since the early 1990s.

The ongoing escalation between Yerevan and Baku comes ahead of Armenian parliamentary elections on June 20.

Pashinian announced the vote under pressure from opposition groups and street demonstrators, who had staged rallies demanding his resignation over his handling of the war.

He rejected the criticism, saying he had no choice but to concede or see his country's forces suffer even bigger losses.

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