Azerbaijani tanks shelled positions in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on Wednesday for the first time in more than 20 years, the region’s rebel defence ministry said.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody conflict over the disputed territory in the 1990s before reaching a tenuous ceasefire in 1994, but they have not signed a peace deal and clashes erupt regularly.
Nagorno-Karabakh has since become an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, backed by the Armenian authorities.
“For the first time since the ceasefire, Azerbaijan has used tanks on the Karabakh frontline,” the territory’s rebel defence ministry said in a statement. One soldier is said to have been killed.
“Some 1,500 shots were fired from tanks and grenade-launchers,” the statement added.
But Azerbaijan has offered a different version of events, saying Armenia had fired mortar rounds at Azeri settlements.
The defence ministry in Baku warned it would launch retaliatory strikes on “enemy” army positions in the disputed territory. “The regime in Armenia bears responsibility for all of this,” a statement from the defence ministry in Baku said.
In Washington, the US State Department condemned the violence and urged both sides to adhere to the ceasefire.
“The recent escalation of violence and the use of heavy weapons are unacceptable,” spokesman John Kirby said.
In a separate incident, Armenia said it had arrested a former senior army officer on suspicion of spying for Azerbaijan and selling state secrets.
“A retired major, Garik Marutyan, 38, who previously served as a reconnaissance chief at the defence ministry, cooperated with Azerbaijani special services active in Turkey,” Armenia’s national security agency said in a statement. If convicted, he faces a jail term of up to 15 years.
The two ex-Soviet nations regularly exchange fire along their shared border and across Karabakh’s volatile frontline.
US mediator James Warlick tweeted on Friday that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev “were on track” to hold their first face-to-face encounter in over a year later this month.