Azerbaijani Tanks Shell Breakaway Region: Rebels

(AFP) – Azerbaijani tanks on Wednesday shelled positions in the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region for the first time in more than 20 years, as Armenia arrested a retired military officer on suspicion of spying for its archfoe.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody conflict over the disputed territory in the 1990s before reaching a tenuous ceasefire in 1994 but they have not signed a peace deal and clashes erupt regularly.

“For the first time since the ceasefire, Azerbaijan used tanks on the Karabakh frontline,” the rebel defence ministry said in a statement.

“Some 1,500 shots were fired from tanks and grenade-launchers,” the statement said, adding that one Karabakh soldier was killed.

Baku and Yerevan have been at loggerheads for decades over the status of the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that enjoys the backing of the Armenian authorities.

Separately, Armenia said it had arrested a retired military officer on suspicion of spying for Azerbaijan and selling state secrets.

“A retired major, Garik Marutyan, 38, who previously served as a reconnaissance chief at the defence ministry, cooperated with Azerbaijani special services which are active in Turkey,” Armenia’s national security agency said in a statement.

He faces a jail term of up to 15 years, it said.

The two ex-Soviet nations regularly exchange fire along their shared border and across Karabakh’s volatile frontline.

Raising the spectre of a return to all-out war, both sides reportedly used heavy artillery in tit-for-tat attacks in September.

Mediators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned last week that “the status quo has become unsustainable” and called on the two countries to reduce tensions.

US mediator James Warlick tweeted on Friday that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev “were on track” to hold their first face-to-face encounter in over a year later this month.

Ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of Nagorny Karabakh during the 1990s war, in which some 30,000 people died.

Photo Caption: Armenian separatists seized control of the Nagorny Karabakh region from Azerbaijan in 1984, as soldiers hold a Victory Day parade in Stepanakert (AFP / Karen Minasyan).

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