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Armenia and Azerbaijan have reignited a decades-old ‘frozen conflict.' Here’s why they’re fighting, and dozens are dying.

A man speaks with his child, wounded during shelling, in Stepanakert in the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, on Sept. 28, 2020. Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued on Monday morning after erupting the day before, with both sides blaming each other for resuming the attacks.
A man speaks with his child, wounded during shelling, in Stepanakert in the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, on Sept. 28, 2020. Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued on Monday morning after erupting the day before, with both sides blaming each other for resuming the attacks. (Areg Balayan/AP)

YEREVAN, ARMENIA — Armenia said one of its warplanes was shot down Tuesday by a fighter jet from Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey, killing the pilot, in fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan denied it.

The move would represent a major escalation in the decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region that was reignited on Sunday. It followed numerous calls from around the globe for a cease-fire.

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Armenian officials said an SU-25 from its air force was shot down in Armenian airspace by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet that took off from Azerbaijan, and the pilot was killed.

The allegation of downing the jet was “absolutely untrue,” said Fahrettin Altun, communications director for Turkey’s president. Azerbaijani officials called it “another fantasy of the Armenian military propaganda machine.”

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Earlier in the day, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said Armenian forces shelled the Dashkesan region in Azerbaijan. Armenian officials said Azerbaijani forces opened fire on a military unit in the Armenian town of Vardenis, setting a bus on fire and killing one civilian.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry denied shelling the region and said the reports were laying the groundwork for Azerbaijan “expanding the geography of hostilities, including the aggression against the Republic of Armenia.”

Dozens of people have been killed and wounded since fighting broke out Sunday. The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry reported 84 servicemen killed, while Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said 10 civilians were killed on its side, although he didn’t detail the country’s military casualties.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian government since 1994.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed for “an immediate ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table” in phone calls with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, her office said Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Greece that “both sides must stop the violence” and work “to return to substantive negotiations as quickly as possible.”

Here’s a quick guide to the long-running fight:

What and where is Nagorno-Karabakh?

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan
(The Associated Press)

Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since the 1994 end of a full-scale separatist war that killed about 30,000 people and displaced an estimated 1 million.

Nagorno-Karabakh proper has an area of about 1,700 square miles — about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware — but Armenian forces occupy large swaths of the adjacent territory.

How did this all start?

Long-simmering tensions between Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azeris began boiling over as the Soviet Union frayed in its final years. Once the USSR collapsed in 1991 and the republics became independent nations, war broke out.

A 1994 cease-fire left Armenian and Azerbaijani forces facing each other across a demilitarized zone, where clashes were frequently reported. It became one of a number of so-called “frozen conflicts” that emerged from the fall of the USSR.

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And since then?

International mediation efforts to determine the region’s final status have brought little visible progress.

The conflict has been an economic blow to the Caucasus region because it has hampered trade and prompted Turkey to close its border with landlocked Armenia.

Fighting periodically breaks out around Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders, often deadly, notably in 2016 and this July. Since new fighting erupted Sunday, dozens have been killed and wounded in apparent shelling by both sides. Each country blamed the other for sparking the clashes.

A woman shows damage to her house after shelling by Armenian forces in the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan on July 14, 2020. The two neighbors in the South Caucasus have been locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994.
A woman shows damage to her house after shelling by Armenian forces in the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan on July 14, 2020. The two neighbors in the South Caucasus have been locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. (Ramil Zeynalov/AP)

What’s the big deal?

In addition to causing local casualties and damage, the conflict in the small, hard-to-reach region is also of concern to major regional players.

Orthodox Christian Russia is Armenia’s main economic partner and has a military base there, while Turkey has offered support to Azerbaijanis, ethnic brethren to Turks and fellow Muslims. Iran neighbors both Armenia and Azerbaijan and is calling for calm.

Meanwhile, the United States, France and Russia are meant to be guarantors of the long-stalled peace process, under the auspices of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday that Turkey is “by Azerbaijan’s side on the field and at the (negotiating) table.”

Cavusoglu told reporters that the international community must defend Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in the same way it defended the integrity of Ukraine and Georgia.

“They are holding Azerbaijan, whose territories have been occupied, on an equal footing with Armenia. This is a wrong and unjust approach,” Cavusoglu said after a visit to Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Ankara.

“We call on all countries, especially our partners such as Turkey, to do everything to convince the opposing parties to cease fire and return to peacefully resolving the conflict by politico-diplomatic means,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.

Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Geir Moulson on Berlin, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.

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