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Diplomatic shuffle seeks to calm Armenia-Azerbaijan hostilities

A day-old truce between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces has largely held in Nagorno-Karabakh as world powers scramble for a diplomatic solution. There is concern the conflict could exacerbate regional tensions.

A tenuous ceasefire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh appeared to be holding on Wednesday, after at least 75 were left dead in four days of fighting in the contested region.

The tank, artillery and rocket exchanges were the most violent flare-up in the two-decade-old conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian territory officially a part of Azerbaijan but controlled by local Armenian forces and the Armenian military. Armenian forces also control at least parts of seven other regions of western Azerbaijan.

Fighting erupted on Friday amid mutual accusations by Baku and Yerevan that the other side started the clashes. Azerbaijan's military claimed it had taken strategic heights in what would be the first change of the contact line since a 1994 ceasefire. Armenia denied any territory had been lost.

Watch video 01:33

Shaky ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh

Diplomatic shuffle

The ceasefire went into effect on Tuesday night after Russia brought together Azerbaijan and Armenia's army chiefs in Moscow, underlining the Kremlin's influence over the former Soviet states. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to arrive in the region in the next days.

The Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE), a body co-chaired by France, the United States and Russia, also met on Tuesday and "stressed that it is important to return to the political process on the basis of a sustainable ceasefire."

The Minsk group has been mediating the conflict - which has claimed 30,000 lives - for years in talks that have yielded few results. The group met on Wednesday with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, where they urged both sides to resolve the conflict.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the OSCE, met with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Berlin on Wednesday in a pre-planned visit dominated by the renewed hostilities.

Merkel said Germany would provide "constructive support" to end the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, but cautioned that this two-decade conflict would not be resolved overnight.

The two sides must "do everything in their power to stop the bloodshed and loss of life," Merkel said, adding international mediation was "of the greatest urgency." She spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday night.

Neighboring Iran has also tried to mediate the conflict.

Concern over wider conflagration

The latest violence has sparked international concern over the combustible South Caucasus, a region criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines and riven with ethnic hostilities.

Russia has good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, providing weapons to both sides of the conflict, but is closer to Armenia, with which it has a collective defense treaty and where it has a military base in Gyumri.

Turkey, which shares ethnic and linguistic ties to Azerbaijan, has vowed it will stand by Baku until it reasserts sovereignty over all of its territory. Turkey closed the border with Armenia in the early 1990s over the conflict, giving Armenia land access to the outside world only through Georgia and Iran.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday accused Russia of siding with Armenia. His comments are likely to further inflame relations between Ankara and Moscow, who fell out when a Russian jet was shot down over Turkish territory near the Syrian border last year.

"I hope the steps taken by Azerbaijan to end fighting will be imitated by Armenia, but this is not the case right now," said Erdogan. "Russia says that Turkey is taking sides. If we are looking for someone who is taking sides, it is Russia."

Military brinksmanship

Long upset that one-seventh of its territory is under occupation, energy-rich Azerbaijan used high oil prices to go on a military spending spree, buying billions of dollars in weapons largely from Russia and Israel. At times, Azerbaijan's defense budget has surpassed Armenia's entire government budget.

Thomas de Waal, one of the leading experts on the conflict, pointed out that Azerbaijan has more of an incentive to break the ceasefire.

"As the losing side in the conflict of the 1990s, when it lost almost one seventh of its de jure territory to the Armenians, Baku knows that one of its few tools of pressure on the Armenians is to violate the ceasefire and remind them that the status quo can be shaken," de Waal wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment think tank.

The resumption of hostilities also serves Azerbaijan's autocratic president Ilham Aliyev, who has continued to clamp down on opposition and faces pressure as oil prices collapse.

Speaking beside Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday, Sargsyan doubled down on Armenian rights to Nagorno-Karabakh, saying the people of the region should determine their own future.

"They want to determine their own fate and their own future. They expect only one thing from the international community, namely the recognition of this right," Sargsyan said, blaming Azerbaijan for resuming hostilities.

cw/bk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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