YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces flared up again Thursday on the South Caucasus nations’ shared border, with both sides blaming the other for the attacks that extended the worst outbreak of hostilities between the two countries in years.
In a statement that reflected the potential for the conflict’s escalation, Azerbaijan warned it could strike Armenia’s nuclear power plant if the Armenian forces launched an attack on a strategic water reservoir in Azerbaijan.
“The Armenian side mustn’t forget that the state-of-the-art missile systems our army has are capable of launching a precision strike on the Metsamor nuclear power plant, and that would be a huge tragedy for Armenia,” Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Vagif Dargyakhly said in a statement.
The Soviet-built nuclear power plant is located close to Armenia’s border with Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.
Armenian military spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said Armenia had brought the Azerbaijani statement to the attention of its international partners and expects them to strongly condemn it. He noted that Armenian officials have never made threats to strike civilian facilities in Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry denounced the Azerbaijani threat as “genocidal.”
The two neighbors have been locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. International efforts to settle the conflict have stalled, and clashes have been frequent.
The latest outbreak of fighting in the northern section of the border began Sunday and so far has left at least 17 people dead. Azerbaijan said it lost 12 service members and one civilian, and Armenia said four of its troops were killed and 20 others were wounded.
Both sides also reported that dozens of enemy troops were killed, but the competing claims couldn’t be independently verified.
The current outburst of fighting appears to be the most serious spike in hostilities since 2016 when scores were killed in four days of fighting.
After a lull in fighting on Wednesday, the conflict resumed with new vigor on Thursday. Armenia’s Defense Ministry said Azerbaijani forces launched a cross-border attack targeting its military positions early Thursday and were rebuffed.
Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said the Armenian military allowed Azerbaijan to collect the bodies of its soldiers killed during the raid, adding that Azerbaijani troops already had evacuated more than 10 bodies.
Stepanyan also asserted that the Azerbaijani military shelled several villages in Tavush province with heavy artillery.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry dismissed the Armenian statement as a “disinformation.”
It said the Armenian military attacked Azerbaijani forces on Thursday morning, shelling several settlements with large-caliber weapons.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev fired his foreign minister Thursday, accusing him of failing to duly defend the nation’s interests amid the conflict.
Aliyev also lashed out at nationalist demonstrators who tried to break into the parliament building in the Azerbaijani capital earlier this week while demanding tougher action against Armenia. Seven police officers were injured during the incident.
He accused the leaders of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan of inciting riots to destabilize Azerbaijani during the renewed fighting with Armenia and warned they could face criminal charges.
The United States and Russia, which co-chair the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that has tried to negotiate a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, condemned the violence and called for restraint.
Turkey, which has close ethnic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, has voiced strong support to Baku in the conflict. On Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with Azerbaijan’s deputy defense minister and air force commander, Ramiz Tahirov, in Ankara and condemned “the vile attack” on Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district.
“They (Armenians) will be crushed and drown in this plot they have created and they will definitively pay for what they did,” Akar said after the meeting. “We will continue to stand with our Azerbaijani brothers in the face of such attacks, as we have always done.”
Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.