New Wave of Karabakh Clashes

BAKU -- Azerbaijan and Armenia accused each other Wednesday of triggering a shootout in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that killed up to 16 people, one of the biggest such clashes in recent years.

Both countries gave different accounts of the shootouts in the disputed enclave, seized by pro-Armenian forces from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s in which an estimated 35,000 people died.

Muslim Azerbaijan said 12 Armenian fighters and four Azeri soldiers were killed during clashes. Christian Armenia said eight Azeri soldiers died and two Armenian soldiers were injured.

Armenian President Robert Kocharyan said Azerbaijan had started the attack to take advantage of Armenia's tense political standoff after protests against last month's election.

"It is possible that in Azerbaijan they thought the situation in Armenia had distracted the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh," said Kocharyan, who was born in the breakaway enclave.

Azerbaijan said Armenia was trying to distract attention from protests in Yerevan by focusing on an external enemy.

"The Armenian side resorted to provocations on the frontline in a bid to switch the attention of the international community and its own citizens from internal tensions to an external enemy," said Khazar Ibrahim, an Azeri Foreign Ministry spokesman.

"Azerbaijan will never resort to provocations but will give a proper response to them," he said.

The West and Russia are closely watching the situation after Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said this week that his country was ready to take back Nagorno-Karabakh by force if need be and was buying military equipment and arms in preparation.

"We do not want a war in the region," said a U.S. diplomat in Baku. "We are following the situation very closely, and we urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid any violence."

Robert Simmons, NATO's envoy for the region, said the alliance was ready to help facilitate the peace process. "I think there is a chance for settlement and we will work for it," he said in Moscow. "We are closely watching the peace process."

Aliyev said Kosovo's newly declared independence had emboldened Armenian separatists in the enclave.