French President Emmanuel Macron. (Photo by PASCAL ROSSIGNOL / POOL / AFP) (Photo by PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

A French attempt to relaunch peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh showed no sign of a breakthrough on Saturday as Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for re-igniting their decades-old conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, said Azeri forces had again launched rockets towards its main city, Stepanakert, a week after the opposing sides began pounding each other with tanks and missiles.

The clashes are the worst since the 1990s, raising the risk of a wider regional war that could draw in Russia and Turkey amid deepening concern about stability in the South Caucasus, where pipelines carry Azeri oil and gas to world markets.

“Fierce battles continue along the entire front,” the Azeri defence ministry said on the seventh day of fighting with ethnic Armenian forces.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke on Friday with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia – which backs Nagorno-Karabakh – and said later in a statement he had proposed a new way to restart talks.

“The president of Azerbaijan placed the entire responsibility on the leadership of Armenia for the break-off of negotiations and the armed confrontation,” Aliyev’s press service said. Armenia says it was Azerbaijan that reopened the conflict by launching a major offensive on Sept. 27.

Armenia had said on Friday it was willing to engage with Russia, the United States and France – co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of the OSCE security organisation – on renewing a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Aliyev told Al Jazeera in an interview on Friday that the Minsk group had failed for the past three decades to make progress over the dispute.

He said Azerbaijan was not ignoring ceasefire calls, but this could only be achieved if ethnic Armenian forces withdrew from Azeri territories – a reference to Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions they have controlled since the 1990s.

“(The) conditions must be that they withdraw from the territories. We need our territories back by peaceful means and we demonstrated for 28 years our willingness to have a peaceful settlement,” Aliyev said.

Some 200 people have been reported killed in the past week and the toll may be considerably higher, as Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military losses.

Violence first broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, when both Armenia and Azerbaijan were still part of the Soviet Union, and some 30,000 people were killed before a 1994 ceasefire.

The International Committee of the Red Cross voiced alarm at civilian deaths and injuries, including of children.

“People have been in touch with the ICRC, terrified for themselves and their families and at a loss as to where to go or what to do to stay safe,” it said. It added it was concerned about the risk of a surge in COVID-19 cases from people hiding for hours in shelters or crowding together with poor sanitation.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Alexander Smith

Source: Reuters, October 3rt, 2020