YEREVAN/BAKU -- Azerbaijan has handed over to Armenia the bodies of 29 servicemen killed in the ongoing fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the death toll mounted in the latest flareup of violence in the decades-old conflict over the separatist region.
The handover was acknowledged by both sides on October 29 as Yerevan and Baku continued to blame each other for the collapse of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire -- the third since fighting broke out on September 27.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian said the transfer took place through "the exceptional mediation efforts of the Russian Federation, and with the participation of the field team of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)."
She said that at the same time, ICRC efforts had resulted in one civilian's repatriation to Armenia.
Stepanian said Armenia "once again reiterates its readiness to hand over to the Azerbaijani side the bodies of Azerbaijani servicemen in the territory of Artsakh [Armenia's name for Nagorno-Karabakh], and to start the process of recovery of bodies in the inter-positional zone throughout the entire Artshakh-Azerbaijan front line of hostilities, as well as exchange of information on POWs and their respective handover in future."
Hikmat Haciyev, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, told foreign journalists that the handover was initiated by Baku, with Russia's help.
"On the initiative of Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani side handed over the bodies of 30 dead servicemen to Armenia," Haciyev said.
"Azerbaijan is grateful to the Russian Defense Ministry and, personally, to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, for organizing the transfer of the bodies of deceased Armenian servicemen," Haciyev said.
The handover took place as the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were expected to hold meetings with the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Geneva on October 29.
However, reports said the talks had been postponed for at least one day.
The United States, France, and Russia are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, which had been the main mediator in the conflict.
The Minsk Group said the meeting would be held "to discuss, reach agreement on, and begin implementation, in accordance with a timeline to be agreed upon, of all steps necessary to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said it had verified the use of banned cluster bombs by Armenian forces for the first time since fighting with Azerbaijani forces erupted on September 27.
One or several Smerch rockets were fired into the Azerbaijani city of Barda on October 28, hitting a residential neighborhood close to a hospital, according to the London-based human rights group.
Azerbaijani authorities have said at least 21 people were killed in the attack, with dozens more wounded.
On October 5, Amnesty International identified M095 DPICM cluster munitions that appear to have been fired by Azerbaijani forces into Stepanakert.
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International's regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, urged both sides to immediately stop using cluster munitions and to prioritize the protection of civilians. "The firing of cluster munitions into civilian areas is cruel and reckless, and causes untold death, injury and misery," she said.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, the region's de facto leader, Arayik Harutiunian, said on October 29 that Azerbaijani troops had advanced to within 5 kilometers of the town of Shushi (known as Susa in Azeri), and urged residents to mobilize all their resources to fend off the attack.
Shushi is located about 5 kilometers south of Stepanakert, the largest city in the separatist region.
The de facto Defense Ministry of Nagorno-Karabakh said earlier on October 29 that 51 more casualties had taken its military death toll to 1,119 since fighting with Azerbaijani forces erupted on September 27.
It said that shelling by Azerbaijani forces of civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh continued overnight, while the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry in turn said its forces came under fire in the Goranboy district, north of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Nagorno-Karabakh rights ombudsman, Artak Beglarian, said Azerbaijan on October 29 launched its heaviest missile strikes on the largest city in the separatist region since the fighting started on September 27.
"Azerbaijan struck Stepanakert for several hours, dozens of missiles hit the city," Beglarian said.
"Civilians were injured as a result of the strike, the heaviest during the recent fighting," he said.
Both sides have claimed that the other has been targeting civilians during a month of intense clashes that have drawn in world powers seeking to halt the worst fighting in the region since a 1994 cease-fire.
Following the collapse of the Washington-brokered cease-fire, the U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, urged President Donald Trump to get involved directly in efforts to curb the fighting.
"After a month of fighting, it is long past time for President Trump to directly engage the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey to push for immediate de-escalation and stop the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh," Biden said in a statement on October 28.
"The United States should be leading a diplomatic effort to end the fighting, together with our European partners, and push for international humanitarian assistance to end the suffering; under my administration that is exactly what we will do," Biden, who will face Trump in the November 3 presidential election, urged.
Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the population, reject Azerbaijani rule. They have been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan's troops were pushed out of the breakaway region in a war in the early 1990s.
Aliyev has demanded that Nagorno-Karabakh be returned to Azerbaijan as well as seven surrounding districts controlled by Armenian forces.
Armenia says it will not withdraw from territory it views as part of its historic homeland and where the population needs protection.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has sparked concerns over a wider conflict in the South Caucasus drawing in NATO member Turkey, which is an ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military pact with Armenia.
Turkey has demanded a bigger role in the Minsk Group, which Ankara and Baku say has sidelined the Nagorno-Karabakh issue for decades without finding a lasting solution.
Turkey is not the only regional player with an eye on the conflict.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi visited areas near Iran's border with Azerbaijan and warned the warring parties against harming the security of Iranian territories.
Araqchi, who is on a regional tour that also includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, said on October 29 in Moscow that the Minsk Group had proved to be "inefficient" in its efforts to resolve the decades-old conflict.
"It has been 30 years since the Minsk Group was formed, but it has not been able to find a long-term solution to the problem," Araqchi was quoted by the Iranian Embassy in Moscow as saying.
Earlier this week, Iran announced it had drawn up a plan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the hope of stopping fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continuing along its northwestern border.
The European Union, meanwhile, said the escalation was "unacceptable" and called for new peace talks.
"The European Union finds it unacceptable that after three agreements brokered by Russia, France, and the United States on a cease-fire, the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh still continues," European Commission foreign affairs and security policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement late on October 28.