Azerbaijan’s forces opened fire Tuesday on Armenian positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation,” and ethnic Armenian officials reported at least two civilians were killed and 11 wounded and that there was heavy artillery fire around the region’s capital.
The Azerbaijani defense ministry announced the start of the operation hours after four soldiers and two civilians died in landmine explosions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The reports raised concerns that a full-scale war over the region could resume between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which fought heavily for six weeks in 2020.
The ministry did not immediately give details, but said front-line positions and military assets of Armenia’s armed forces were being “incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” and that only legitimate military targets were attacked.
However, ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement that the region’s capital Stepanakert and other villages were “under intense shelling.”
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan said two people were killed in the firing — including one child — and that eight of the 11 injured also are children.
Although Azerbaijan said the operation was limited to military targets, the defense ministry said that “humanitarian corridors” had been created for “the evacuation of the population from the danger zone.”
Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said the military operation may be part of a plan by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to get ethnic Armenians to leave the area.
“Maybe what we’re looking at, and again, it’s very early to say, is a kind of limited military action which will try to coerce thousands of Armenians to flee to Armenia. And then Aliyev can achieve his objective of taking over Karabakh with not so much bloodshed,” de Waal told The Associated Press.
Earlier Tuesday, Azerbaijan said six people were killed in two separate explosions in the region that is partly under the control of ethnic Armenian forces.
A statement from Azerbaijan’s interior ministry, state security service and prosecutor-general said two employees of the highway department died before dawn when their vehicle was blown up by a mine and that a truckload of soldiers responding to the incident hit another mine, killing four.
Nagorno-Karabakh and sizable surrounding territories were under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 end of a separatist war, but Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself in a six-week war in 2020. That war ended with an armistice that placed a Russian peacekeeper contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, Azerbaijan alleges that Armenia has smuggled in weapons since then. The claims led to a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, causing severe food and medicine shortages in the region.
Red Cross shipments of flour and medical supplies reached Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, but local officials said road connections to the region were not fully open.
The hostilities come amid high tensions between Armenia and its longtime ally Russia. Armenia has repeatedly complained that the 3,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force was unable or unwilling to keep the road to Armenia open even though that duty was stipulated in the agreement that ended the 2020 war.
Armenia also angered Russia, which maintains a military base in the country, by holding military exercises with the United States this month and by moving toward ratifying the Rome Convention that created the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday denied claims that Russia was informed in advance of Azerbaijan’s intention to mount the operation, saying the peacekeepers were notified only “a few minutes” before it began.
Analyst de Waal said that the Russian peacekeeping force “has lost probably its best officers to the war in Ukraine” but that “this breakdown in Armenia-Russian relations is a factor here.
“I think it encourages Azerbaijan to be bolder and it makes the Russians more ambiguous and less willing to to intervene. And, you know, it’s quite possible indeed, that the Russians want to use a crisis to instigate regime change in Armenia,” he said.