YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) - Despite a ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijani forces shelled Armenia’s territory Tuesday and killed at least 49 Armenian soldiers, Armenia’s prime minister said, a large-scale attack that fueled fears of broader hostilities breaking out between the longtime adversaries.
The hostilities erupted minutes after midnight, with Azerbaijani forces unleashing an artillery barrage and drone attacks along Armenia's border, according to the Armenian Defense Ministry.
According to reports, the towns of Vardenis, Jermuk, Goris and Tatev came under Azerbaijani fire.
The ministry said fighting continued during the day despite Russia’s attempt to broker a quick ceasefire. It noted that the shelling grew less intense but said Azerbaijani troops still were trying to advance into Armenian territory.
The ministry added that the Azerbaijani shelling damaged civilian infrastructure and also wounded a number of people.
Arman Tatoyan, the former human rights defender of Armenia, called the attacks on Armenia "criminal" saying they are an open aggression against Armenia.
"These acts are the result of impunity for Azerbaijani war crimes, a consequence of genocidal policy. It is clear that they were creating artificial grounds for attack under the guise of false peace," he stated.
"These aren't miliary clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, these aren't border clashes, this in an outright assault on the Armenian people, on Armenian civilian settlements within the Republic of Armenia itself," Alex Galitsky, Program Director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) said.
"It’s important to note that this is distinct from the conflict within Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). This is now within the borders of Armenian territory, an increased escalation from the Azerbaijani side,’ he added.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, (also known as Artsakh) which is part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
In September 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack on Artsakh, starting a six-week war that killed more than 6,600 people and ended with a Russia-brokered peace deal. Moscow deployed about 2,000 troops to the region to serve as peacekeepers under the deal.
Despite the ceasefire, shelling has continued in the region.
"Azerbaijan has been unabated in its aggression. Hundreds of Armenian prisoners of war remain in illegal detention, dozens of churches and cultural sites have been desecrated or destroyed, and Azerbaijan has continued to encroach along the line of contact - displacing civilian populations. In May 2021, Azerbaijan launched an incursion into the Republic of Armenia where it remains entrenched to this day. Azerbaijani forces within the Republic of Armenia routinely terrorize civilians, and have set up checkpoints along major transit routes - disrupting international trade, and freedom of movement within Armenia," the Armenian National Committee of America said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who represents Los Angeles' largest Armenian community, has called on the US to halt all assistance to Azerbaijan and called the attack "an egregious violation of the ceasefire and direct attack on Armenia’s sovereignty."
Rep. Jackie Speier released the following message on Twitter, "Outraged by reports of heavy & coordinated Azeri artillery strikes on peaceful Armenian towns. To be clear: these are internationally recognized Armenian towns, NOT disputed territory. It's unconscionable that the US continues to provide Aliyev w/ military aid."
According to the Armenian National Committee of America, prior to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the U.S. provided Azerbaijan with over $120 million in military assistance.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, held a meeting with military officials to discuss the situation. "It was noted that the responsibility for the current tension rests squarely with the political leadership of Armenia," his office said.
Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, also placed the blame for the violence on Armenia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for Yerevan to halt its "provocations," and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar condemned "Armenia’s aggressive attitude and provocative actions."
Speaking in parliament early Tuesday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Azerbaijani shelling killed at least 49 Armenian soldiers. He squarely rejected the Azerbaijani claim that it was responding to Armenian provocations.
The governor of Gegharkunik province, one of the regions that came under Azerbaijani shelling, said there was a 40-minute lull in the fighting, apparently reflecting Moscow’s attempt to negotiate a truce, before it later resumed.
The governor, Karen Sarkisyan, said that four Armenian troops in his region were killed and another 43 were wounded by the shelling.
As the fighting raged overnight, Pashinyan quickly called Russian President Vladimir Putin and later also had phone calls with French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the hostilities.
Speaking in parliament, Pashinyan noted that the Azerbaijani action followed his recent European Union-brokered talks with Aliyev in Brussels that revealed what he described as Azerbaijan’s uncompromising stand.
The Armenian government said it would officially ask Russia for assistance under a friendship treaty between the countries and also appeal to the United Nations and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-dominated security alliance of ex-Soviet nations that includes Armenia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refrained from comment on Armenia’s request but added during a conference call with reporters that Putin was "taking every effort to help de-escalate tensions."
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said top officials from the security grouping held a meeting to discuss the fighting. Armenia’s representative at the grouping emphasized during the meeting that Yerevan expects its allies to take "efficient collective steps to ensure security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Armenia."
The Russian Foreign Ministry urged both parties "to refrain from further escalation and show restraint."
Moscow has engaged in a delicate balancing act, maintaining strong economic and security ties with Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base, while also developing close cooperation with oil-rich Azerbaijan.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.