YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Turkey should be among countries involved in talks to end fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Azerbaijan and Armenia again accused each other on Thursday of shelling civilians in and around the mountain enclave.
With more peace talks scheduled for Geneva this week, the European Union said an escalation in the month-old conflict was “unacceptable” and called for a lasting settlement after the collapse of three ceasefires.
The fighting has been the worst in the South Caucasus since about 30,000 people were killed in a 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Azeri presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said on Twitter that a civilian was killed when an Armenian missile hit his home in Tap, a village north of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia denied this.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said earlier that Armenia had fired at its forces and civilian settlements along the front line, shelling the nearby town of Terter.
The human rights ombudsman in Nagorno-Karabakh said more than a dozen shells had fallen on Stepanakert, the enclave’s largest city, a day after a maternity hospital there was struck. Two civilians were wounded.
Armenia’s foreign ministry said Stepanakert, and the towns of Shushi and Martakert, had been “under continuous attack”.
The OSCE Minsk Group, which has been leading peace talks, is due to meet the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers in Geneva on Friday, although neither has confirmed its minister will travel.
Three diplomatic sources told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that preliminary talks between the group’s co-chairs France, Russia and the United States were taking place.
Putin said on Thursday that “many countries, including Turkey and a host of European states” should work together to find consensus. Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, has demanded a greater say in talks.
“The first stage is to stop the fighting, stop the killing,” Putin told an online Russian investment forum.
HANDOVER OF BODIES
Civilians on both sides were killed during heavy shelling on Wednesday.
In the first such handover since the conflict reignited on Sept. 27, Azerbaijan returned 30 bodies of soldiers. Armenia’s defence ministry said Yerevan would respond in kind.
The European Union, meanwhile, called for both sides to return to “substantive negotiations” on a peaceful settlement.
The defence ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh region said on Thursday it had suffered 51 more casualties, taking its military death toll to 1,166.
Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military casualties. Russia has estimated as many as 5,000 deaths on both sides.
(Reporting by Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova, additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi, Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Catherine Evans)