(CN) — Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched a large-scale attack on its breakaway, ethnic-Armenian, mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing and wounding numerous civilians and soldiers and raising fears of ethnic cleansing and a new war with its neighbor Armenia.
Azerbaijani forces attacked Stepanakert, the main city in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other parts of the region, according to news reports and social media. Videos showed extensive damage to civilian buildings and victims, including children, being treated at hospitals. Artillery, drones and troops were used in the attack.
In launching its attack, Azerbaijan said it was undertaking “anti-terrorist operations” and demanded the “complete withdrawal” of ethnic Armenian forces as a condition for peace. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry announced the start of the operation hours after it reported that four soldiers and two civilians died in land mine explosions in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, but its population is mostly Armenian, and the region has been a source of friction and armed conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus.
The conflict raises the risk of further escalation that could draw in regional and global powers. Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey and the West, while Armenia has the backing of Russia and Iran — though Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been courting both NATO and the European Union in recent months, accusing Moscow of not providing it with adequate protection.
Armenia’s foreign ministry urged Russian peacekeeping troops in the region to stop Azerbaijan’s “full-scale aggression” against the local population. Russian peacekeepers said they were helping evacuate civilians. Russian troops were deployed following a 2020 ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia brokered by Moscow.
Azerbaijan said it was striking military targets, according to a report from Al Jazeera, citing Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to President Ilham Aliyev.
“In no way is the Azerbaijan side targeting civilians. We have high-precision weapons and there are pre-determined military objectives,” Hajiyev said.
He added that civilian casualties were likely unavoidable and accused ethnic Armenian forces of using civilians as “human shields.”
Gegham Stepanyan, the human rights ombudsman in Nagorno-Karabakh, reported on social media Tuesday night that 138 people, including 29 civilians, had been wounded and that 23 soldiers and two civilians had been killed.
The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh had become dire following a blockade of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijani forces that cut the region off from Armenia.
Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of committing “ethnic cleansing” by imposing the blockade on the only road connecting it to Armenia. In February, the U.N. International Court of Justice ordered Baku to allow movement along the corridor.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an “immediate end to hostilities” and “direct dialogue.”
“Azerbaijan’s unacceptable military actions risk worsening the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Blinken said.
There are fears that the Armenian population may be forcibly driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Freedom House, a U.S.-backed non-profit organization, warned that Baku's attack heightens “the risk of ethnic cleansing against the region’s Armenian population.”
“Any attempt to forcibly change the region's demographics is illegal and unacceptable,” Freedom House said in a statement.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, echoed those concerns. “There is an urgent need to return to dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians,” he said. “This military escalation should not be used as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population.”
France and Germany condemned the attack, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying he would call for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Azerbaijan's assault is an embarrassment for the EU, which has fostered closer ties with Baku despite its authoritarian leadership. Europe has gotten friendly with Azerbaijan as part of its efforts to find alternative sources of natural gas to Russia. The EU helped build a gas line from Azerbaijan to Italy.
Laurence Broers, a Caucasus expert at Conciliation Resources, a London-based non-profit group that works on peace dialogues, told Al Jazeera that Azerbaijan sees this operation as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to solve this conflict, which has afflicted the country for 30 years, on its terms.”
“There is a sense of an ultimatum being presented to the population,” he said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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