BAKU: Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched an operation against the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and demanded the surrender of Armenian separatists, warning it would “continue until the end”.

Separatists said Azerbaijan was using artillery, combat aircraft and attack drones and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called it a “ground offensive”.

Fears of a fresh war have been growing recently, with Armenia accusing Azerbaijan of a troop build-up around the disputed Armenian-majority territory.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said it was using “high precision weapons on the front line and in depth”.

“Localised anti-terrorist measures have been launched in the region,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

Armenian separatists said five civilians were killed and 80 were wounded by the fighting, accusing Azerbaijani forces of “trying to advance” into Karabakh.

“Fighting continues along the entire line of contact,” the Armenian separatist army in Karabakh said on social media.

Azerbaijan said a construction worker was killed by shrapnel in the town of Shusha.

Baku’s presidency urged Karabakh separatists to lay down their arms and offered talks in the town of Yevlakh.

“Illegal Armenian armed forces must raise the white flag,” it said. “Otherwise, the anti-terrorist measures will continue until the end.”

Calls for coup 

The ex-Soviet Caucasus rivals have been locked in a decades-long dispute over Karabakh, fighting two wars over the mountainous territory in the 1990s and in 2020.

Pashinyan in a televised address on Tuesday accused Azerbaijan of engaging in “ethnic cleansing of Karabakh Armenians”.

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But he said the Armenian army was not involved in the fighting and the situation on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan was “stable”.

He urged Russia and the UN to “take steps” and spoke on the phone to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron.

“Both sides emphasised the inadmissibility of using force,” press secretary Nazeli Baghdasaryan said in statements about both calls.

In the Armenian capital Yerevan, hundreds of people gathered outside the government building, calling on Pashinyan to resign over the crisis.

Pashinyan responded to the protest in his televised comments, saying: “We must not allow certain people, certain forces to deal a blow to the Armenian state.

“There are already calls, coming from different places, to stage a coup in Armenia.”

‘Intensive fire’

Armenia’s foreign ministry condemned Azerbaijani “aggression” against Karabakh.

“On September 19, Azerbaijan unleashed another large-scale aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, aiming to complete its policy of ethnic cleansing,” the foreign ministry said.

It said Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region should “take clear and unequivocal steps to stop Azerbaijan’s aggression”.

But Azerbaijan justified the mission, citing “systematic” shelling by Armenian-backed forces and accusing them of carrying out “reconnaissance activities” and fortifying defensive positions.

“There is also the strengthening of combat positions with personnel, armoured vehicles, artillery and other weapons,” Azerbaijan said, accusing separatists of “a high level of combat readiness”.

Regional power brokers Russia and Turkey, which oversee a fragile peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, had been informed about Azerbaijan’s military activities in Karabakh, Baku said.

Turkey called the operation “necessary” and urged “comprehensive negotiations” over the crisis.

Russian peacekeepers patrolling the region called for an immediate ceasefire, and said they had organised civilian evacuations.

Moscow’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it was given “minutes” notice of the start of Azerbaijan’s operation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was “concerned” over the “sharp escalation” in Karabakh and was working to get the two countries to negotiate.

Mine blasts

The fighting came just hours after Azerbaijan said four police officers and two civilians were killed in mine blasts in Nagorno-Karabakh, with authorities blaming separatists.

The deaths at dawn came after Armenian separatists said they had reached an agreement with Azerbaijani authorities to resume aid deliveries to Karabakh.

Baku’s security services said two civilians had died in the district of Khojavend and four police officers were killed in another mine explosion en route to the site.

Azerbaijan said the incident took place “in the zone of temporary deployment of the Russian peacekeeping contingent,” despatched by Moscow in 2020 as part of a ceasefire deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan said the police officers were killed on the road to Azerbaijani-controlled Shusha, recaptured from separatists in 2020.

In the six-week 2020 war, Azerbaijan regained control of key areas of Karabakh, including the culturally revered town of Shusha.

But other parts of the region, including the main city of Stepanakert, remain under the control of Armenian separatists.

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