BAKU - Armenian forces killed three Azerbaijani troops in fierce clashes overnight, Azerbaijan said Monday, as tensions spiral in the Caucasus neighbours' protracted conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.
"Three Azerbaijani soldiers were killed in heavy fighting" with Armenian forces across the frontline of breakaway Nagorny Karabakh, Azerbaijan's defence ministry said in a statement. Yerevan and Baku are locked in a decades-long conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh, a Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.
The two ex-Soviet nations regularly exchange fire along their shared border and across Nagorny Karabakh's volatile frontline. In an escalation unprecedented since the 1994 ceasefire, both sides have reportedly used large-calibre artillery in tit-for-tat attacks in recent days, raising the spectre of a new all-out war.
On Saturday, Armenia threatened Azerbaijan with "retaliatory" artillery and rocket strikes, and accused Baku of breaching the shaky truce.
Yerevan had said Thursday that Azerbaijan shelled its territory with large-calibre artillery, killing three civilian women, while on Friday, the ethnic Armenian rebel authorities in Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of killing four of its soldiers.
Azerbaijan's foreign ministry accused Armenia of "turning civilians into a target by deliberately stationing its firing positions in and around civilian facilities to shell positions of the Azerbaijani armed forces."
International mediators to Karabakh peace talks held under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Saturday "condemned in strong terms the use of artillery that caused additional casualties," and called on both countries to "accept an OSCE mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations".
Ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of the territory during a 1990s war that left some 30,000 dead.
Despite years of negotiations, the two countries have not signed a final peace deal to cement a tenuous ceasefire.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia's entire state budget, has threatened to take back the breakaway region by force if negotiations fail to yield results.
Armenia - backed by Russia, which sells weapons to both Baku and Yerevan - says it could crush any offensive.