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What is behind the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

As fierce fighting continues between fierce rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia over a breakaway region, fears of a regional war that could attract Russia and Turkey are growing.

The two former Soviet republics say dozens of fighters have been killed and hundreds wounded since the outbreak of hostilities on Sunday.

On Tuesday, both were accused of firing directly into the other’s territory beyond the conflict zone as civilian deaths escalated and fighting raged for a third day.

As the violence escalates, NBC News looks at the main players and what is behind the recent battles.

What is Nagorno Karabakh?

At the heart of the conflict is Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has been under de facto Armenian control since the early 1


Its provision to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era was challenged by its ethnic Armenian majority. This led to war after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and Nagorno-Karabakh tried to declare independence.

Medics are helping a man who was injured in clashes in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in a photo released by the Armenian Foreign Ministry on Monday. Armenian Foreign Ministry through AFP – Getty Images

About 30,000 died in the conflict, which also displaced about 1 million before the ceasefire in 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh has since remained a breakaway region in Azerbaijan.

There is local leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the territory, home to about 150,000 people, relies on Armenia for financial support.

Long-term negotiations mediated by Russia, the United States and France have made little progress and there have been periodic clashes along the region’s borders.

Why fight now?

In the summer, tensions between the two sides boiled over, escalating into deadly clashes in July that led to hostilities on Sunday.

The escalation in July was seen as a failure for Azerbaijan, which reportedly lost a high-ranking general in the fighting, said Kevork Oskanian, a research associate in political science at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

Sunday’s clashes could be an attempt by Azerbaijan to save face, Oskanian said.

But while the last battle began over the weekend, the roots of the conflict go back centuries.

Armenians see Nagorno-Karabakh as the province of their ancient kingdom of Artsakh, Oskanian said.

Meanwhile, the region is of central cultural importance to Azerbaijanis who follow Shusha in modern-day Nagorno-Karabakh to the 18th-century Karabakh Khanate.

While religion is used by both sides for propaganda purposes, both in Christian Armenia by a majority and mainly in Muslim Azerbaijan, Oskanian said the conflict is almost exclusively linked to competing secular nationalism on both sides.

“On the Armenian side, you often hear the argument that this is a struggle for life and death, that if their country loses, it would mean the destruction of the Karabakh Armenians and, perhaps, of Armenia itself,” he wrote in an e-mail. “On the Azerbaijani side, people are talking about the importance of Karabakh for their sense of what it means to be Azerbaijani.”

What is the role of Turkey?

Turkey has cultural, economic and political ties with Azerbaijan, and the two nations also held major military exercises in July and August.

Turkey’s strong president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Monday that his country would stand by “brotherly Azerbaijan, give all its resources and heart”.

Turkey is trying to strengthen its internal legitimacy by supporting another Turkic nation, Azerbaijan, Lawrence Broers, a Russia and Eurasia program associate at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said in an email.

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“He has recent combat experience in several regional theaters, and he also has a defense industry keen on new markets,” Broers said.

Pashinyan, the prime minister of Armenia, called on the international community to stop any possible Turkish intervention, which he said would destabilize the region.

In connection with the escalation of violence on Tuesday, Armenia claimed that one of its fighter jets had been shot down by a Turkish fighter jet, killing the pilot, but Ankara has denied involvement.

Armenian officials also accused Turkey, a NATO member, of supplying Azerbaijan with Syrian fighters and weapons. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey deny it.

Turkey is in a bitter dispute with Armenia over the mass murder of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians from the Ottoman Empire, concentrated in present-day Turkey, in the early 20th century, which Armenia considers genocide. The Turkish government has loudly denied that the killings constituted genocide.

Who else is involved?

Russia remains the most active international participant in the conflict and the main mediator.

Moscow is trying to maintain good relations with both sides in the conflict and deepen its influence in the region, Oskanian said. The Kremlin also does not want tensions to spiral out of control and attract outside forces – especially Turkey, he added.

While the United States remains one of the mediators in the conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh has not been a priority for Washington since 2001, Broers said.

However, the recent outbreak caught America’s attention, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on both sides to end the violence on Tuesday.

Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who has Armenian roots, also commented, calling for “diplomatic measures to prevent unnecessary escalation and tragedy” in a series of tweets on Sunday, calling on Azerbaijan to “stop all offensive use of force.”

What next?

The worst-case scenario is a full-scale war involving Russia and Turkey, experts say, including Broers.

The conflict could destabilize the South Caucasus region – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – which serves as a corridor for pipelines transporting oil and gas to world markets.

But Broers and Oskanian said the pipelines were not paramount, although they could be if the conflict escalated.

“Oil and gas pipelines run quite close to the current front line. In fact, several tens of kilometers, “Oskanian said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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