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Armenia-Azerbaijan time bomb ticks down in Karabakh

18 july 2012, 16:37
0
The rusty sign reads: "this area is under enemy fire."

Only the wind is heard rustling the wheat fields at the Karabakh frontline, but the silence is deceptive -- the soldiers lined along the Mardakert Heights know that shooting can start at any time, AFP reports.

Thirty metres (yards) divide Armenian and Azerbaijani troops in the fragile ceasefire over Nagorny-Karabakh, the mountainous region that is home to one of the world's most dangerous frozen conflicts and will hold leadership elections Thursday.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are locked in a bitter dispute over Nagorny-Karabakh, which Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s that left some 30,000 people dead but Baku wants to reclaim.

Despite years of internationally-mediated negotiations since the 1994 ceasefire, the two sides have not yet signed a final peace deal and the risk of a new conflict remains palpable.

There are still frequent exchanges of gunfire between the opposing armies and energy-rich Azerbaijan has repeatedly vowed to retake the region using its huge defence budget, a move that Armenia warns it would crush.

Nagorny-Karabakh is still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but the Azerbaijani community -- which before the war made up around 25 percent of the population -- no longer exists.

Almost all of the 145,000 population of Nagorny-Karabakh is Armenian and the region declares itself as the Nagorny-Karabakh Republic. But its existence as a state is recognised by no country in the world, not even Armenia.

The breakaway region will on July 19 elect a new leader with security dominating the campaign of the two main hopefuls, incumbent and former security minister Bako Sahakyan and retired army general Vitaliy Balasanyan.

"If Baku starts war, it will get a crushing rebuff from the Karabakh army," said Sahakyan.

According to Svante Cornell, director of the Washington-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, there is still no meaningful international effort to solve the problem and domestic issues in the two countries could tip the dispute into a full-blown conflict.

"This situation cannot continue forever and at some point something has to break," he told AFP. "This is a time bomb. If nobody does anything about it, I don't see how it could not at some point erupt into a new armed conflict."

--- 'The chance of war will increase' ---

From his well-camouflaged observation point overlooking the vast lowland on the Azerbaijani-controlled side of the frontline, Karabakh army colonel Jalal Harutyunyan can see the Azerbaijani fortifications and the "enemy" village buried among the verdure of orchards.

"Azerbaijanis shoot every day. If it lasts for long, then we return fire," he said.

Streets are deserted in the village as locals live in constant fear of Armenian snipers. They have built a four-metre-high fence around the cemetery to safely bury their dead, but still funerals here are only held at night.

War paused in a freeze-frame at the "line of contact" -- the entire frontier between Karabakh and Azerbaijan proper -- stuffed with landmines to avert infiltration of commandos.

Sometimes commandos manage to clean paths of landmines and approach enemy positions under the dead of night.

"I was on duty when I saw three men speaking in Azerbaijani. I opened fire, but they threw a grenade and wounded a friend of mine," said Grigor Madatyan, a 19-year-old soldier with wide green eyes.

"We have found out that it was a group of 12 saboteurs. They managed to escape, taking with them their wounded."

Increasing the stakes in the standoff, Azerbaijan is under increasing domestic political pressure to restore the country's territorial integrity with its budget bulging with the revenues from oil and gas exports.

Baku is trying to win concessions from Yerevan by trapping it into an arms race it cannot afford and excluding it from strategic energy projects. Yet the military option remains very much on the table.

"Azerbaijan uses economic levers to force Armenia into peace -- through economic exhaustion of Armenia and its exclusion from important regional projects," Mubariz Gurbanly, senior lawmaker from Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, told AFP in Baku.

"Azerbaijan's military budget is bigger than the entire state budget of Armenia," he boasted, adding that "if talks do not bring results, then the probability of war will increase."

Cornell said that the economic disparity between Azerbaijan and resource-poor Armenia was widening very quickly. "You have weak Armenia and probably revanchist Azerbaijan."

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