Karabakh death toll mounts in tit-for-tat attacks

Karabakh death toll mounts in tit-for-tat attacks

Washington – Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are sustaining their worst combat fatalities in over a decade, according to officially confirmed death tolls by both sides. From the start of the year to August 1, Armenian forces have confirmed 18 fatalities, with Azerbaijan confirming 25, in various combat incidents on the Line of Contact, including sniper shootings, mine explosions and raids.

By comparison, in all of 2013 the Armenian side suffered seven fatalities in combat incidents and Azerbaijan reported twelve. In 2012 these stood at 14 and 19, respectively.

Most recently on August 1, Azerbaijan reported the death of nine of its military personnel, after denying any casualties just hours before. The last time, the Azerbaijani side is known to have suffered similar losses in such short span of time was in March 2008, when the two sides clashed in northeastern Nagorno Karabakh in the days following post-election violence in Yerevan.

The Armenian side published pictures of grenade launchers, radio equipment (made by Israeli Elbit Systems) and medical kits captured from Azerbaijani forces. Judging by the bulky radio equipment it more likely came from Azerbaijani positions rather than from an attacking force. This means many of the Azerbaijani casualties likely occurred as a result of an Armenian raid of Azerbaijani positions.

In comments on the same day, David Babayan, a senior aide to NKR president, said that the Armenian side was against the use of force in general, but was left with little choice. “This is not a solution,” Babayan told Armenpress news agency referring to the casualties on both sides. “But that doesn’t mean we will not respond in order to prevent future aggression.”

The Armenian and NKR governments have also called for a return to cease-fire and implementation of the 1995 agreement on prevention of cease-fire violations that Azerbaijan has long refused to honor.

[UPDATED August 2: On the morning of August 2, reports came of another failed Azerbaijani raid that left 5 of its servicemen – all professional soldiers – dead and eight other wounded; Sr. Lt. Zorik Gevorgyan was also killed and three other Armenians wounded in the overnight fighting.

A tactical escalation

The pattern of tit-for-tat attacks has continued since the 1994 cease-fire, mostly through Azerbaijan’s effort to keep pressure on Armenia and reverse the existing status quo without going to a more dramatic escalation and possible full-scale war. In every year since the cease-fire, the Azerbaijani side has suffered more frontline casualties, primarily due to geographic advantages enjoyed by the Armenian side and Azerbaijanis’ more aggressive posture. The Azerbaijani side has been trying to change this in its favor and prior to the fatalities reported on August 1, the ratio stood at 18 to 17, with more Armenian servicemen having been killed up to that point in the year.

The most recent tempo of tit-for-tat violence can be traced over the past seven months from official reports of soldiers’ deaths in combat.

On January 20, the Armenian side reported an Azerbaijani raid on its positions in the northeast of Nagorno Karabakh, with Sgt. Armen Hovannisyan killed in fighting. Armenian officials believed the attack was timed to the anniversary of 1990 Soviet crackdown in Baku that followed anti-Armenian pogroms. On January 28, the Armenian Army Day, Pvt. Karen Galstyan was shot by a sniper, also in Mardakert direction. The Armenian side retaliated in both cases and Azerbaijan sustained casualties. The Azerbaijan aircraft were reportedly scrambled to fly along the Line of Contact (LoC) and armor movements were reported in vicinity.

Following a February hiatus (most likely related to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, with Russia pressuring both sides to exercise restraint), the tempo of cease-fire violations again picked up in March. Army privates Arman Gukasyan, Garnik Torosyan and Arayik Babayan were killed in incidents on the Karabakh LoC on March 19, 24 and 27, respectively. And on March 31, Lt. Harutyun Safaryan died in a mine incident. The Armenian side once again retaliated.

In April, fatalities were reported primarily from mine incidents, including one on April 7, when three Azerbaijani servicemen were killed and six wounded. No casualties from sniping or raids were reported from April 2 thru mid-May. At the same time, both Karabakh Defense Army commander Gen. Movses Hakobyan and, weeks later, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Gen. Zakir Hassanov pledged disproportional response to fatal attacks from the other side.

The hiatus was broken once again on May 19, when Sgt. Artur Ohanjanyan was killed by a sniper, southeast of Nagorno Karabakh. On May 26, the Armenian side suffered its most senior casualty in a number of years, with Lt. Col. Garik Balayan killed. And on May 28, marked as Independence Day by both countries, a raid on Armenian positions killed Corp. Erik Gasparyan and wounded four others. Azerbaijan publicly buried two Special Forces officers in subsequent days.

In June, focus briefly shifted to the border between Armenia and Nakhichevan. On June 2, an Azerbaijani soldier was shot on Nakhichevan border, followed by the deaths of Warrant Officer Andranik Yengoyan and Pvt. Boris Gasparyan on June 5, both from sniper fire. In apparent response, the Armenian side tried a new tactic – Armenian forces moved up the previously neutral high ground on Armenia-Nakhichevan border that opened much of the Azerbaijani exclave, including its administrative center, to direct observation by Armenian forces, and forced a number of Azerbaijani border posts to retreat.

Back in Karabakh on June 19, Sgt. Narek Poghosyan was killed in a raid and on June 24, Pvt. Armen Avetisyan was shot in a sniper incident. On July 11, Pvt. Movses Gasparyan was killed in another sniper incident. In another change of tactic, the Armenian side appeared to exercise restraint, with no Azerbaijani casualties reported following these incidents. But when on July 15 Azerbaijani forces shot a civilian tractor operator Arvid Danielyan in the east of Karabakh, an apparent response was delivered – an Azerbaijani civilian fishing in Terter river was reportedly shot and killed on July 19.

[In a separate series of dramatic events in early July, three men from Azerbaijan, at least one of them a former military officer, walked into the mountainous Kelbajar district and subsequently kidnapped and killed 17 year-old Smbat Tsakanyan and, in another incident, attacked a civilian Niva vehicle, killing Maj. Sargis Abrahamyan and also seriously wounding a female civilian inside. One of the three was shot dead as part of the Niva incident and two others were apprehended and are now facing murder charges in Nagorno Karabakh.]

The most recent uptick of violence came in the last week. On July 26 soldier Khachatur Badasyan was killed and two soldiers were wounded and on July 31, two more soldiers – Ararat Khanoyan and Azat Asoyan – were killed in apparent raids on Armenian positions in Karabakh, in which Azerbaijani forces also suffered casualties. It appears the latest casualties meant that the Armenian side could not restrain from retaliation any longer.

The oil money-fueled Azerbaijani military command will be under pressure to retaliate. With the Karabakh conflict firmly eclipsed by the de-facto Russian-Ukrainian war, it is unclear if anyone will care to help put a stop to the escalating violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is also unclear if Ilham Aliyev, whose policies promote the increased violence on LoC, might feel that enough blood has been spilled for now.

[UPDATED August 2: Both the U.S. State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry have issued calls for restraint and return to the cease-fire. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have reportedly been invited to meet in Sochi, Russia on August 8.]

Editor’s note: For up to date news on the security situation in the Caucasus consult www.razm.info (in Armenian with many of the articles also available in Russian.