YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh ground on for a fifth week Thursday as top diplomats from Armenia and Azerbaijan prepared for more talks on a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Separatist authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijani forces of targeting several of the region’s towns with Smerch multiple rocket systems, a devastating Soviet-designed weapon intended to ravage wide areas with explosives and cluster munitions, and one town with military aviation.
In Stepanakert, the region’s capital, civilians were killed and wounded, officials said without clarifying how many.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied using aviation and accused Armenian forces of shelling the Terter, Goranboy and Barda regions of Azerbaijan. The ministry also reported downing two Armenian Su-25 warplanes, a claim Armenian officials rejected as “disinformation.”
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994.
The latest fighting between regional, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces began Sept. 27 and has involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones. It is the largest escalation of hostilities over the separatist region in the quarter-century since the war ended. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people, have been killed in a little over a month.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,119 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t disclosed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed 90 civilians and wounded 392.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that, according to Moscow’s information, the death toll from the fighting was nearing 5,000, a significantly higher number than officially reported.
The hostilities have raged on despite international calls for peace and three attempts at establishing a cease-fire. The latest U.S.-brokered truce frayed immediately after it took effect Monday, just like two previous cease-fires negotiated by Russia. The warring sides have repeatedly blamed each other for violations.
Russia, the United States and France have co-chaired the so-called Minsk Group set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate in the conflict, but they have failed to score any progress.
The Minsk Group’s co-chairs were set to meet with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Geneva on Thursday, but the prospects for a breakthrough appeared dim.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said that to end hostilities, Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. He has insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to reclaim its territory by force since international mediators have failed.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.