(RFE/RL) – A team of U.S., Russian and French mediators reportedly came under fire on Tuesday as it crossed into Azerbaijani-controlled territory from Nagorno Karabakh through a “line of contact” that has seen growing ceasefire violations in recent years.
The three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group crossed the heavily fortified frontline around Karabakh while monitoring the ceasefire regime there together with field representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They held talks with Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leaders in Stepanakert earlier in the day.
“During our Line of Contact crossing, repeated gunfire forced OSCE monitors to take cover. This is unacceptable,” James Warlick, the group’s U.S. co-chair, wrote on his Twitter page. He did not specify where the gunfire came from or give other details.
Warlick also posted photographs of the mediators wearing protective helmets and flak jackets escorted by Karabakh Armenian army officers in no man’s land just northeast of Karabakh.
The authorities in Stepanakert confirmed the shooting and blamed it on Azerbaijani forces. “At the end of the monitoring there was automatic gunfire from the Azerbaijani side,” read a statement released by the foreign ministry of the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR).
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claimed the opposite, however. In a statement cited by the Trend news agency, it said that the Armenian side opened fire on its troops stationed at the site of the mediators’ crossing.
The reported incident occurred just hours after Warlick, Russia’s Igor Popov and France’s Pierre Andrieu met with Bako Sahakian, the NKR president, in Stepanakert on the second leg of their latest tour of the Karabakh conflict zone. According to Sahakian’s spokesman Davit Babayan, the talks focused on Armenian-Azerbaijani truce violations increasingly involving mortars and other heavy weapons.
“They discussed overall prospects for resolving the conflict,” Babayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “But since the prospects are very dim right now and serious steps need to be taken in order to ease tension on the borders, the main emphasis was put on this issue.”
“Without stabilizing the situation it would be simply wrong and inappropriate to speak of the conflict’s resolution,” he said.
Warlick expressed serious concern at the situation on “the line of contact” and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border before the mediating troika met with Armenia’s leaders in Yerevan on Monday. He renewed the co-chairs’ long-standing calls for the conflicting parties to work out a “mechanism” for international investigations of truce violations.
“Armenia has agreed to discuss the details of the mechanism, and we urged Azerbaijan to do the same,” the mediators said in a statement late last month after meeting with the foreign ministers of the two warring nations in New York.
At least until now, Azerbaijan has objected to the proposed investigations. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said after the New York talks that the mediators should also come up with a timetable for Armenian withdrawal from the “occupied Azerbaijani territories.”
The NKR’s Sahakian reaffirmed the Karabakh Armenians’ support for the mediators’ proposal when he met with Warlick, Popov and Andrieu on Tuesday.
Photo Caption 1: Armenian officers escort the U.S., Russian, and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the Line of Contact northeast of Karabakh, Oct 27 2015. (A screenshot of a Twitter post by Ambassador James Warlick.)
Photo Caption 2: Sahakian, the Karabakh president, meets with the visiting co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Stepanakert, October 27 2015.