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Azerbaijan Confirms Strike Inside Armenian Territory; Russia Renews Call For Diplomatic Solution

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Local residents walk past what was reportedly damage from a missile strike in the Azerbaijani city of Ganca on October 8.

STEPANAKERT -- Azerbaijan has confirmed striking a missile-launch site in Armenia that Baku claims was being used to target civilian areas, marking the first time in a two-week escalation in fighting that it has acknowledged hitting targets inside Armenian territory.

The Caucasus neighbors are mired in a decades-old conflict over the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, but there are fears that the current flare-up could draw Russia and regional power Turkey into a wider conflict.

Ankara and Moscow on October 14 each encouraged a return to internationally mediated talks to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, although Turkey included a demand that "occupied lands" be returned to Azerbaijan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for cooperation between leaders to end the fighting in a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Kremlin said.

The two leaders "stressed the urgent need for joint efforts to end the bloodshed as soon as possible and move to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem," according to a Kremlin readout of the call -- their first since fighting erupted late last month.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry announced on October 14 that it had destroyed an Armenian tactical ballistic-missile system "in the border regions of Armenia near the occupied Kalbajar region." It said there was "no civilian infrastructure" at the site.

An Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman confirmed the Azerbaijani strike on its missile site, but denied her country had been firing into Azerbaijan or targeting civilian areas.

Hinting at possible retaliation against targets in Azerbaijan, Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian said that "by the same logic, the [Armenian armed forces] henceforth preserve the right to target any military installations and combat movements in Azerbaijani territory."

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Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, meanwhile, called the situation "very difficult" and said Azerbaijan's intention is to take control of Nagorno-Karabakh completely.

Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, he said, do not want "to stop their aggression."

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev accused the Armenian side of "trying to attack and take control of our pipelines."

Speaking to a Turkish news outlet, Aliyev warned that if the effort continued, "I can say that the outcome will be severe for them."

Russia, which brokered a humanitarian cease-fire between the two sides that took force on October 10, again urged an immediate halt to the violence, which erupted on September 27.

Moscow added that the conflict should be resolved through diplomatic means.

The extension of the fighting into Armenian territory is particularly significant as it could invoke defense obligations from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member along with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

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According to Article 4 of the CSTO treaty, “[in] case of aggression commission (an armed attack menacing safety, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty) to any of the member states, all the other member states at request of this member state shall immediately provide the latter with the necessary help, including military one.”

Putin on October 7 said that Russia's commitments to Armenia as part of the CSTO do not include the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which is not an CSTO member.

“It is deeply regrettable that the hostilities continue, but they are not taking place on Armenian territory,” Putin said.

On October 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged a deployment of Russian military observers to the Line of Contact that separates ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces near Nagorno-Karabakh, if both sides agreed.

Meanwhile, the de facto Defense Ministry of Nagorno-Karabakh said on October 14 that it had recorded another 23 fatalities among its forces, pushing the military death toll to 555 since fighting with Azerbaijani forces erupted at the end of September.

In a statement on October 14, the International Crisis Group warned all actors involved in the conflict about the need to prevent civilian casualties.

"It is critical that both sides cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering," the statement said.

Azerbaijan was said to have struck targets in Armenia previously, including a bus reportedly destroyed by an Azerbaijani drone strike in the eastern Armenian town of Vardenis on September 28.

On October 1, Armenia said it had shot down four Azerbaijani drones in the provinces of Kotayk and Gegharkunik, just north of the capital, Yerevan. But neither side has confirmed such incidents.

Aliyev has meanwhile asked that Turkey be involved in peace negotiations.

Turkey, which has no diplomatic relations with Armenia and has never acknowledged blame for the mass Ottoman-era killings of ethnic Armenians, is a NATO member and a staunch Azerbaijani ally.

There are unconfirmed reports that Turkey has been funneling fighters from Syria to the region.

Armenian President Armen Sarkisian has suggested that Armenians "from all over the world" might be among those fighting on the Armenian side.

Erdogan on October 14 accused the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group that has been supervising mostly dormant peace talks for over a decade of dragging its feet.

"The United States, Russia, and France are still putting this off with their stalling tactics," Erdogan told Turkish lawmakers. "Just give them the occupied lands. Let them do what they want in their own lands.

"What you need to do is finish your negotiations and hand over the lands to their owners," Erdogan said.

Figures from the Turkish Exporters' Assembly showed a sixfold increase in military exports to Azerbaijan, including tens of millions of dollars in the kind of drones and other military equipment that have fed the current military operations in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The military sales spiked after days of deadly fighting flared up in July near the internationally recognized border between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Aliyev reportedly challenged Russian officials after accusing Moscow of sharply increasing its military equipment shipments to Armenia after the July outbreak of fighting.

Russia's Lavrov on October 14 suggested Ankara was spurning talks in favor of a military resolution of the dispute.

"We do not agree with the position voiced by Turkey, that was also expressed several times by President Aliyev," Lavrov said.

The "frozen conflict" over Nagorno-Karabakh is the longest-running in the former Soviet Union.

There have been occasional skirmishes but none on a par with the current conflagration, which has killed hundreds. A 1994 cease-fire ended intense fighting that left an estimated 30,000 people dead as the region broke away from Azerbaijan.

With reporting by Reuters
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