BAKU/YEREVAN -- Heavy shelling between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces persisted for a fifth day as the two sides continued to ignore repeated calls from international leaders to halt fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
As the death toll rose in the heaviest clashes since the 1990s around the region -- part of Azerbaijan but run by its mostly ethnic Armenian inhabitants -- France, Russia, and the United States called on October 1 for "an immediate cessation of hostilities between the relevant military forces."
In their joint statement, Presidents Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump acted in their capacity as co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which mediates in the conflict.
The trio also called on the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to "commit without delay to resuming substantive negotiations, in good faith and without preconditions, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs."
But addressing parliament, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would continue to provide “all types of support” to Azerbaijan as he criticized the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs for failing to resolve the long-running dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Given that the United States, France, and Russia as OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have neglected the problem for nearly 30 years, it is not acceptable for them to call for a cease-fire in the face of negative developments today,” Erdogan said.
He demanded Armenian “occupiers” first leave the breakaway territory.
As international powers struggled with diplomacy, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said October 1 that its forces had carried out "crushing artillery strikes against Armenian forces' positions in the occupied territories" overnight.
Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh said both sides exchanged artillery fire, describing the situation along the front line as "tense.”
More than 100 people, including many civilians, have been killed since fighting erupted on September 27 -- the worst flare-up in years over region, whose status has been disputed for decades.
Heavy clashes -- including the use of armed drones, tanks, helicopters, and multiple-rocket systems -- have been reported along much of the Line of Contact that separates the ethnic Armenian forces who control Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan's troops.
The upsurge of violence has threatened to draw in Russia, a member of a security alliance with Armenia, and NATO member Turkey.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts to inform them that his country was willing to host negotiations.
Putin and Macron also held a phone call to discuss the situation, with both leaders calling on the sides to "implement an immediate and full cease-fire, de-escalate tensions and show maximum restraint," according to the Kremlin.
Referring to Yerevan's accusation that Turkey is dispatching fighters from northern Syria to bolster Azerbaijani forces, Macron's office said he and Putin "also shared their concern regarding the sending of Syrian mercenaries by Turkey to Nagorno-Karabakh." It did not provide further information.
But later on October 1, Macron said France has "information today that indicates with certainty that Syrian fighters from jihadist groups have transited through Gaziantep [in southern Turkey] to reach the theater of operations in Nagorno-Karabakh."
Macron, who was speaking as he arrived for a summit with EU leaders in Brussels, added, "This is a very serious new fact, which changes the situation."
Separately, Russia's Foreign Ministry on October 1 was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying that Moscow has knowledge about Syrian mercenaries in the Nagorno-Karabakh region independently of media reports, after two Syrian rebel sources told Reuters that Turkey is sending Syrian rebel fighters to support Azerbaijan.
Earlier in the day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “any participation of third countries in this standoff may have extremely negative consequences."
Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied the reports.
Answering a question regarding the allegations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that "any participation of third countries in this standoff may have extremely negative consequences."
The potential for robust Turkish involvement in the conflict is being watched closely by Russia, which is already on opposing sides with the NATO member in conflicts in Libya and Syria.
Russia is among the largest suppliers of weaponry to both Azerbaijan and Armenia. It also has a military base in Armenia.
Turkey’s involvement is also raising attention in Europe, with Macron accusing Ankara of "reckless and dangerous" statements backing Azerbaijan.
The fighting, as well as Turkey’s involvement, is likely to come up during a summit of EU leaders starting on the evening of October 1.
Reports said two French nationals working for the Le Monde newspaper were wounded on October 1 during shelling of the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh and taken to a hospital.
Reuters quoted Le Monde Chief Editor Luc Bronner as confirming that two of its journalists, including one photographer, had been injured.
Macron said the French Foreign Ministry was working to organize the journalists’ repatriation “as quickly as possible.”
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said that the two reporters were badly wounded in shelling by Azerbaijan forces in the town of Martuni. The ministry said that two Armenian journalists were also hit in the shelling.
The Azerbaijani side neither confirmed nor rejected the report.
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.
Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces.