BAKU (AFP) – Armenia threatened ‘grave consequences’ Wednesday after Azerbaijani forces shot down a military helicopter, sparking fears of a major escalation in the conflict over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.
The downing of the helicopter belonging to the army of the breakaway ethnic Armenian region is the most serious incident on the Karabakh border since a 1994 ceasefire ended a bloody war that cost 30,000 lives.
Armenian media reported that the helicopter’s three crew members were all killed.
“A MI-24 combat helicopter attempted to attack positions of the Azerbaijani army near (Karabakh’s) Agdam district,” Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said in a statement.
“The helicopter has been shot down by the Azerbaijani army,” it said, adding that the wreckage fell on territory held by ethnic Armenians.
Yerevan vowed that Baku will face “grave consequences”, fuelling fears that the incident might seriously undermine a shaky peace.
“This is an unprecedented escalation and the consequences for Azerbaijan will be grave,” said Armenia’s foreign ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovannisyan.
“Azerbaijan’s claim that the Armenian helicopter attacked its positions is not true. Examination of the wreckage will prove that the helicopter carried no weapons,” he told AFP.
The United States stressed there could be “no military solution to the conflict”.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington that the downing of the helicopter was “yet another reminder of the need to re-double efforts on a peaceful resolution… including reducing tensions and respecting the ceasefire”.
The State Department wasn’t taking sides over the helicopter incident, with Psaki insisting, “I don’t have any verification and any of those details.”
The OSCE Minsk Group of mediators in Karabakh peace talks expressed “very serious concern” over the “drastic” incident.
“Today’s events remind us of the volatility of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict and the urgency to intensify efforts to find a lasting settlement,” the group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, said in a statement.
The separatist defence ministry in Karabakh said its helicopter was downed “while conducting a training flight as part of military drills”, adding that a firefight began after the incident and was continuing.
“The enemy is continuing to fire intensively in the direction of the site of the incident with small arms of various calibre,” it said.
For the past week Karabakh forces have been conducting joint drills with Armenia coordinated by the Armenian army chief of staff.
Two decades after a ceasefire agreement ended their bitter war over Karabakh, Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have regularly exchanged fire across their frontier and along the Karabakh frontline.
Last August saw an unprecedented spiral of violence with more than 20 troops killed from both sides in the deadliest clashes since an overall ceasefire was agreed.