Fragile truce holds in Karabakh after deadly clashes

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Fragile truce holds in Karabakh after four days of deadly clashes

Lala-Tepe heights (Azerbaijan) (AFP) - Azerbaijani and Armenian forces on Wednesday said they were largely observing a truce that halted four days of clashes which claimed scores of lives in the worst outbreak of violence in decades over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region.

"The ceasefire was largely observed overnight along the Karabakh frontline," said the Armenia-backed separatist defence ministry in Karabakh.

Azerbaijan's defence ministry reported isolated firing from the Armenian side but said its forces were "strictly abiding by the ceasefire agreement" reached in Moscow on Tuesday by the army chiefs of the two former Soviet states.

Later in the day the Azeri army said its troops had come under heavy fire in several front-line areas -- a claim that was later denied by the Armenian side.

Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said that sporadic shooting continued on Wednesday "including from tanks" but that it was "not as intensive" as during the previous days.

An AFP photographer in the village of Matagis in Karabakh, some 10 kilometres (six miles) from the frontline, confirmed that the situation was calm.

The fragile truce comes after at least 75 people were reported killed in the worst fighting over the disputed mountainous region since it was captured from Azerbaijan by Armenian separatists in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan's army claimed to have wrested back control of several strategic locations inside Armenian-controlled territory, effectively changing the frontline for the first time since an inconclusive truce ended a three-year war in 1994.

The military said it took control of the strategic Lala-Tepe and Talysh heights and the village of Seysulan.

"Azerbaijani troops are currently reinforcing the liberated territories," the defence ministry in Baku said in a statement.

An AFP journalist in Lala-Tepe heights confirmed that the area was under Azerbaijani control.

Armenia however dismissed the Azeri claims to have regained ground as "untrue".

- Shuttle diplomacy ?

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on Wednesday urged the international community to respect Karabakh's right to determine its own future.

Speaking after a long-planned meeting in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel, he took a swipe at Armenian ally Russia, saying it was "painful for us that Russia and other countries... sell weapons to Azerbaijan".

Merkel called on the two sides "to do everything in their power to stop the bloodshed and loss of life" and said international mediation was "of the greatest urgency".

The German leader also said she would host Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev for talks in June.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Russia of siding with Armenia in the conflict, saying the Kremlin -- with which Turkey has been at loggerheads since shooting down a Russian jet in November -- was meddling in Karabakh like it did in Ukraine and Syria.

"Russia likes taking sides, it has done so in Ukraine, Georgia and today in Syria," said the Turkish strongman, who himself has openly expressed support for Azerbaijan, declaring that "Karabakh will one day return to its original owner".

Envoys from the US, France and Russia -- who co-chair the so-called "Minsk Group" that has long mediated Karabakh peace talks -- reportedly met with Aliyev in the Azeri capital Baku on Wednesday and called on both sides to step up efforts to end the fighting.

Putin on Tuesday urged both Azerbaijan and Armenia to "ensure" the truce holds.

Both sides accuse each other of triggering the latest outbreak of violence, which has sparked concern of a wider conflict in the region.

Azerbaijan said 31 of its soldiers and four civilians died in the bloodshed, while Karabakh's separatist authorities reported the deaths of 35 military and five civilians during the fierce clashes that erupted on Friday night.

The bloodshed is the worst since the early 1990s, when Armenia-backed separatists seized control of Nagorny Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian region inside Azerbaijan, in a war that claimed some 30,000 lives.

The two sides have never signed a peace deal, despite a 1994 ceasefire, and sporadic violence along the line of contact regularly claims the lives of soldiers on both sides.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan, whose military spending exceeds Armenia's entire state budget, has repeatedly threatened to take back the breakaway region by force.