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Azeri troops killed in clashes with Armenia as tensions spike

Armenian soldiers with the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh walk through trenches at the frontline on the border with Azerbaijan, on October 25, 2012
Armenian soldiers with the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh walk through trenches at the frontline on the border with Azerbaijan, on October 25, 2012

Azerbaijan said Friday it had lost eight soldiers in three days of clashes with arch-foe Armenia on the border and near the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region in a dramatic spike in tensions in the long-simmering territorial conflict.

International mediators, who have for years sought to help the two countries reach a breakthrough, expressed concern over the violence.

Azerbaijan's defence ministry said Armenian troops had ramped up their activity in the past few days and attacked Azeri positions.

"Reconnaissance and sabotage groups of the Armenian armed forces attempted to break through the line of contact between the troops along the entire front line," the ministry said, adding that the Armenian troops had been repelled.

"As a result of clashes over the past three days, eight Azeri troops have died," it said.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a protracted conflict over the Nagorny Karabakh region with occasional skirmishes along the front.

The latest clashes however represent a surge in tensions between the two countries, with one prominent Azeri military expert saying Baku has not suffered such losses in a single bout of hostilities since 1994.

Azerbaijan said Armenia had also suffered losses, although it did not provide any details.

In Armenia, a high-ranking defence ministry official presented a different version of the events.

Speaking to AFP, he said that Azerbaijani "sabotage groups" had tried to break into Armenia and that the Azeris had lost 14 troops in the latest skirmish.

"Azerbaijani subversive groups were ambushed," the official said. "As a result, they have 14 dead and lots of wounded. There are no casualties or wounded on the Armenian side."

Officials in Nagorny Karabakh for their part had said that two Armenian troops died in an attack by Azerbaijani forces on Thursday.

Armenian-backed separatists seized Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a 1990s war that killed 30,000 people.

Despite years of negotiations since a 1994 ceasefire, the two sides have yet to sign a peace deal.

Azerbaijan has threatened to take back the disputed region by force if negotiations do not yield results, while Armenia has vowed to retaliate against any military action.

- Calls to respect ceasefire -

Uzeir Dzhafarov, a prominent military expert in Azerbaijan, said clashes had recently intensified between the two sides.

"Azerbaijan has not had such losses since March 1994," he told AFP.

A security analyst in Armenia, Stepan Safaryan, for his part pointed out that the clashes came as international mediators tried to organise a meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Safaryan suggested that the leadership of Azerbaijan had sought to wring concessions from Armenia in the run-up to the meeting.

"Through such an escalation Azerbaijan is blackmailing the international community and the Armenian side before the meeting," he told AFP.

The Karabakh peace talks are mediated by the so-called OSCE Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.

The US co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, James Warlick, expressed concern over the violence on Friday.

"We are seriously concerned about the recent upsurge in violence along the line of contact. The ceasefire needs to be respected," he said on Twitter.

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, who is chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said in June that the status quo between Armenia and Azerbaijan was not an option, urging the two sides to "move to peace".