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Five killed in fresh clash over Nagorny Karabakh

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 Saturday it had lost four troops in new clashes with arch-foe Armenia near the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region as mediators sounded the alarm over a spike in tensions in the protracted conflict.

The fresh confrontations -- which also led to the death of an ethnic Armenian soldier -- come after Azerbaijan said Friday that eight troops had been killed in three days of fighting, with Moscow and Washington both expressing concern over the violence.

The two ex-Soviet Caucasus nations have been locked in a long-simmering conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, a majority Armenian region within Azerbaijan that is de facto independent, with occasional skirmishes along the front.

The sudden surge in tensions in a region that has been on a knife-edge for years comes as Armenia's ally Russia is locked in a confrontation with the West over the future of ex-Soviet Ukraine.

A leading Azeri military expert said earlier this week that Baku has not suffered such losses in a single bout of hostilities since 1994, when a ceasefire was agreed.

The defence ministry in Baku said Saturday: "Armenia's reconnaissance and sabotage groups once again tried to attack Azeri positions at the line of contact" near Nagorny Karabakh.

Azeri troops repelled the overnight attack, forcing Armenian soldiers to retreat, the defence ministry said.

"As a result of the clash, four Azeri troops died," the ministry said in a statement.

Authorities in Nagorny Karabakh for their part said a 25-year-old ethnic Armenian soldier had been killed, and accused Azerbaijan of trying to carry out "sabotage and reconnaissance activities".

They claimed three Azeri troops had been killed and seven were wounded.

Armenia said weapons including grenades and mortars had been used against Nagorny Karabakh troops and that the Azeri troops' actions contradicted the negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group and threaten large-scale military hostilities.

Later Saturday Armenia announced that President Serzh Sarkisian would meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi next week to discuss the crisis.

"The meeting between the two presidents will take place on August 8 or 9, in Sochi," Armenian Prime Minister Ovik Abraamian was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

'Further escalation unacceptable'

Co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has for years tried to broker a breakthrough in the conflict.

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

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

Russia on Saturday sounded the alarm, calling the clashes a "serious violation of a ceasefire agreement and stated intentions to reach a settlement through political means".

"A further escalation is unacceptable," the Russian foreign ministry said.

The United States on Friday also renewed a plea for the presidents of the two countries to hold talks.

"Retaliation and further violence will only make it more difficult to bring about a peaceful settlement," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan has threatened to retake Nagorny Karabakh by force if negotiations do not yield results, while Moscow-allied Armenia has vowed to retaliate against any military action.

Agasi Yenokyan, a political analyst in Armenia, suggested that the clashes may be in the interests of Russia, which he claimed wants to station troops in Nagorny Karabakh to boost its presence in the Caucasus.

"Armenian authorities have several times hinted they are capable of preserving peace in the region themselves, without the help of third parties," he said.

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