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14 April 2023

Recent Skirmish on Azerbaijan-Armenia Border Leaves Seven Dead

On April 11, seven soldiers died in a shoot-out on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Each country has called the clash a ‘provocation’ as both sides argue as to who shot first and why.

karabakh skirmish

Image: Armenia MoDvideo screen grab 

On April 11, 2023, Karabakh saw the worst Azerbaijan-Armenia clashes since September last year, with seven soldiers reported as having lost their lives in several hours of fighting on the border.   

As usual, with such clashes, details of the exact circumstances leading to the conflict remain murky. Armenian sources claimed Azerbaijani forces had “opened fire on Armenian servicemen doing engineering work.” Armenian social media sites shared a video which shows the high-speed arrival of a purportedly Azerbaijani vehicle to where a work crew can undoubtedly be seen digging. According to the Armenian narrative, this was the precursor to Azerbaijanis launching a ‘provocation.’ However, it’s hard to imagine that a single isolated vehicle would willingly initiate a battle in such circumstances. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for the attack, which it also labelled a ‘provocation,’ claiming that the spark was shelling and small-arms fire from the Armenian positions towards the Azerbaijani army. According to one breathless commentary in the Baku press, this thesis was all but confirmed by the Armenian government through its attitude to talks. Baku’s analysis is that the video gives clear proof showing that Armenian soldiers had been attempting to build a military post between two Azerbaijani posts and that such a discovery would necessarily have prompted enquiries from the Azerbaijani military. Quite what the spark was is, however, unclear.   

Important here is the location of the fire-fight, which was in a border zone just east of the Armenian village of Tegh. That’s the village beyond which the old Lachin Road towards Shusha and Khankendi (Stepanakert to Armenians) formerly crossed into Azerbaijani territory under the protection of Russian peacekeepers. During 2022, Azerbaijan built a replacement highway that would fulfill obligations to allow road access between Armenia and Khankendi – the main population centre of Karabakh Armenians – allowing Baku to regain unfettered access to the ruined regional city of Lachin and beyond. Thereafter, the Russian peacekeepers’ ambit moved further southeast with a new road connection crossing the border near Kornizdor.   

Meanwhile, the main access road to Khankendi has been constricted for months by so-called ‘eco-protests’ adding to sensitivities.   

Following the clashes, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Nabila Massrali, was quoted in a statement deploring the clashes and restating that Brussels calls “for restraint and for the settlement of all disputes by peaceful means” with “the forces of either side withdrawn to safe distances from this line to prevent any similar incidents from occurring.”   

This is a reference to the extreme sensitivity of the Azerbaijan-Armenia border in Karabakh. In Soviet days this was an internal border of the USSR. Then, from 1991 until the 2020 Second Karabakh War, Armenian occupation of most of Azerbaijan’s territory in that area meant that the de facto border seemed far away. Now, however, villages in the Syunik Province of southern Armenia (the land Azerbaijan calls Zangezur) find themselves close to a border previously seen as merely a line on a map. Troops guarding their countries’ respective lands are now far more likely to stray across the ill-defined border, whether by mistake or as part of attempts to push territorial claims in areas of dispute – a process that’s been called ‘borderisation.’   

The border issue was also newsworthy on April 10 when  Azerbaijan reported that two servicemen had gone missing in the Shahbuz region of Nakhchivan – an area of uplands whose northern section backs onto Armenia. It seems that the cause was bad weather and poor visibility.   

It is presumed that it was these individuals who have since been detained by Armenian forces having strayed across the border. One was apparently found in a barn at Ashotovan some 14km beyond the border and was detained by farmers.   

The other was found deeper into Armenia and appeared to be alive but heavily beaten, according to photos that emerged today on social media channels. Armenian social media meanwhile posted videos that appeared to be of the same man claiming to have boasted about killing Armenians. The propaganda war continues.