Azeris and ethnic Armenians fight as Russia, U.S. and France seek ceasefire
By Nvard Hovhannisyan, Nailia Bagirova and Stephanie Nebehay
YEREVAN / BAKU / GENEVA (Reuters) - Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians fought with artillery and heavy weapons on Thursday as the United States, France and Russia stepped up efforts to secure a ceasefire and avert a major war in the South Caucasus.
The Kremlin said late Thursday that the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia had been invited to attend talks in Moscow on Friday, adding that the invitation followed calls from the two countries' heads of state and government.
"After a series of telephone conversations with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the Russian President is calling for the military action in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to be halted," a Kremlin statement said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier on Thursday that it was in talks with Azerbaijan and Armenia to organize a possible meeting in Moscow.
There was no immediate response from Azerbaijan and Yerevan, and officials in either country were unavailable to comment.
The announcement is the first result of international efforts to end the fighting, which has killed at least 400 people since the September 27 outbreak.
Azerbaijan said the city of Ganja had come under fire deep within its territory. Ethnic Armenians who control Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain enclave in Azerbaijan, said Stepanakert, the capital, and Shusha were shot at by Azerbaijani forces.
In a sign of growing concern in the region, the head of a Russia-led six-country military alliance, including Armenia, warned that the group could intervene if Armenian sovereignty were threatened.
The ongoing fighting and mounting tensions highlighted the difficulty US, Russian and French officials encountered in Geneva in an attempt to end the fighting.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov should attend talks in Geneva on Thursday, but no direct meetings are planned between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
No information was available on the results of his meeting with foreign diplomats.
Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan is expected to hold separate talks with representatives of the USA, France and Russia in Moscow on Monday.
Washington, Paris and Moscow are co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in the European Minsk Group, which has led mediation on Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992.
"The position of the United States was clear and has not changed: both sides must end hostilities immediately and work with the co-chairs of the Minsk Group to return to substantive negotiations as soon as possible," said a US spokesman.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin spoke by phone with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ali Asadov on Thursday to underline the importance of resuming peace talks and introducing a ceasefire, Russian news agencies reported, citing the government.
Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan under international law, but is populated and ruled by ethnic Armenians and broke off in 1991-94 in a war that killed around 30,000 people.
The renewed fighting has heightened concerns that Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia, may be drawn into the conflict.
The clashes have also raised concerns about the safety of pipelines in Azerbaijan that carry natural gas and oil to Europe, and Moscow fears that Islamic militants will invade Nagorno-Karabakh and use it as a base for entry into Russia.
Stanislav Zas, chairman of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which brings together Russia and five other former Soviet republics, did not provide details when he said it could intervene if Armenia's sovereignty were threatened.
However, he said the group did not welcome any action by Turkey or other countries aimed at promoting peace.
According to Azerbaijan, 31 Azerbaijani civilians have been killed and 154 injured since September 27, but no information on military casualties has been released.
According to Nagorno-Karabakh, 350 of its military personnel and 20 civilians were killed.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's main demand for a ceasefire is that Armenia set a timetable for withdrawing from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding Azerbaijani territories.
Armenia has ruled out a withdrawal from what it regards as its historic homelands. She has also accused Turkey of military involvement in the conflict and of sending mercenaries, which Ankara has denied.
In another fallout of the conflict, Armenia fired its head of the National Security Service for no reason, and Azerbaijan recalled its ambassador to Greece for consultations - a crucial step after Athens withdrew its own envoy and accused Azerbaijan of tolerating militants on him his soil.
(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and by Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; writing by Margarita Antidze and Timothy Heritage; editing by Hugh Lawson, Lisa Shumaker and Richard Pullin)
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