Deaths of Azerbaijan villagers brings new all-out war fears

At the spot in an Azerbaijani front-line village where a woman and her 16-month-old granddaughter died this week in shelling, a few residents were gathered to mourn. As a delegation of international military attaches and journalists approached, some of the residents shouted that only full-out war could truly free them.

The deaths of 52-year-old Sahiba Guliyeva and granddaughter Zahra on Tuesday were the latest bloodshed in the decades-long "frozen conflict" over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenians; Azerbaijan claims the forces include regular Armenian military.

Those forces took control of the region and some surrounding territories in a separatist war that was supposed to be halted by a 1994 cease-fire, but that left the sides facing off across a demilitarized buffer zone. Outbursts of fighting are frequently reported by both sides.

International mediators have been unable to resolve the tense limbo, and fears persist that a full-scale war could resume. The Guliyevas' deaths, which brought wide dismay and anger on social media in Azerbaijan, bolstered the worries.

"It's necessary to understand that the Amenian-Azerbaijani, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not frozen; it could flare up at any moment and bring serious consequences to the region," Ramiz Mekhtiyev, the head of Azerbaijan's presidential administration, said in a statement Thursday.

A spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh's leader blamed Azerbaijan for the increased tensions, saying the mortars that hit Alkhanli were fired in response to Azerbaijani shelling.

"In fact, the losses among the civilian population favor the ruling regime in Azerbaijan. Thus, they try to distract the population from internal problems, intoxicate, aggravate the image of the 'hated enemy'," David Babayan told The Associated Press.

Gurban Ismaylov, a 37-year-old resident of Alkhanli, said that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but Ismaylov disagrees.

"We are waiting for the call from President Aliyev to free our lands and everybody, as one, will go to war," he said.


Jim Heintz in Moscow and Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, contributed.