MOSCOW — Azerbaijani forces, advancing back into Nagorno-Karabakh after repeated defeats, reportedly recaptured 15 villages from Armenian militias in the disputed territory Sunday, bringing a warning from Russia that the offensive is pushing the region close to all-out war.
Armenian leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Christian Armenians in the Caucasus Mountains within Muslim Azerbaijan, said that more than 200 of their people were killed in the three days of intense fighting, some of the heaviest in the four-year conflict over the region.
But Azerbaijan declared that its actions were defensive, a response to Armenian gains. "Armenian expansion into Azeri lands, which has already gone far beyond the frontiers of Karabakh, has in recent days become more and more large-scale," Azerbaijani President Abulfez Elchibey said in a statement.
"Preparations were under way for the seizure of new Azeri lands and for the destruction and deportation of thousands of civilians," Elchibey alleged, justifying the coordinated waves of artillery, ground and air attacks by Azerbaijani militias re-entering Nagorno-Karabakh.
The claims and counterclaims conflicted so sharply, however, that with virtually no independent reporting from the region it was impossible to say which side had the upper hand in the fighting.
Both sides agreed, however, that the Azerbaijani forces had recovered substantial territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian officials in the region said the Azerbaijanis have retaken 15 villages that their militias had captured during an Armenian offensive in the spring.
The conflict also appeared to be spreading. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials acknowledged development of a "second front" outside Nagorno-Karabakh around the northern Azerbaijani towns of Kazakh and Tauz, 120 miles from the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert but only a few miles from the Azerbaijani border with Armenia.
This prompted a warning from the Russian Foreign Ministry that the conflict was dangerously near escalation into a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Moscow urged both sides to seek a peaceful resolution.
But the Azerbaijani offensive, in fact, put into question an international conference, planned for this week in Rome, that was intended to open negotiations on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia announced that its delegation was still leaving for Rome; Azerbaijani officials said they doubted theirs would be present.
"Our presidential election was not contested on the basis of the surrender of Azerbaijani territory," an Elchibey spokesman said from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, referring to the election just a week ago of Elchibey, a leading nationalist who pledged to regain the territory lost to Armenians.
Armenians had succeeded in recent months in pushing most Azerbaijanis out of Nagorno-Karabakh. This led to unrest in Azerbaijan and the resignation of President Ayaz Mutalibov, who had promoted peace talks with Armenia.
The fighting Sunday reportedly centered around Khojaly, where both sides deployed tanks, artillery and helicopters in a battle for the town, according to Turan, an Azerbaijani news agency, and to the independent Moscow news agency Interfax.
Khojaly was seized in late February by Armenian forces, who were accused by Azerbaijanis of killing several hundred civilians. Armenians said the death toll was inflated, although International Red Cross representatives said in Baku last week that they have verified 580 deaths.
The Armenpress news agency, reporting from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, quoted Nagorno-Karabakh officials as saying that at least 200 people died in the recent fighting and that several hundred more were wounded.
But officials dismissed Azerbaijani claims of success in the new battle for Khojaly as "propaganda aimed at raising their spirit."
Azerbaijani Defense Ministry officials told Turan that more than 500 Armenians had been killed or wounded in the new offensive; they put their casualties at 50 dead and 130 wounded.
Armenpress later reported that Armenian militias had stopped the Azerbaijani advance into the Mardakertsky region of Nagorno-Karabakh and recaptured at least one village. They also stepped up their own attacks in the Askeran area, the news agency said.
Although Armenia has taken the official position is that it is not involved in the struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh, the upsurge in fighting there brought a warning over the weekend from Yerevan that Armenia could step in if Azerbaijan launched a big attack on Armenians inside Karabakh.
In a counter-warning, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of using a recently opened land corridor to Karabakh as a cover for its own broader territorial ambitions.
"The government of Armenia is continuing to use the so-called humanitarian corridor to concentrate a powerful strike force of air and land weaponry and troops, among which are a large number of foreign mercenaries," the Azerbaijani statement declared.
In the welter of accusations and counter-accusations, Armenia had already accused Azerbaijan of using foreign mercenaries, presumably Russians and Ukrainians from the old Soviet army.
Karabakh parliamentary officials also repeated their charges that Azerbaijan was bombing and shelling Shaumyanovsk, a predominantly Armenian district center just outside Nagorno-Karabakh, in Azerbaijan proper, with chemical weapons.
Further ethnic clashes were reported Sunday in Southern Ossetia, a region of Georgia, another former Soviet republic in the Caucasus. Georgian militias shelled the regional capital of Tskhinvali late Saturday and Sunday morning, killing 21 people, according to local news agencies.
Ancient hostility between Georgians and Ossetians has been rekindled as Ossetian nationalists demand, as the right of "self-determination," the unification of South Ossetia, which is part of Georgia, with North Ossetia, which is across the border in Russia.