YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Heavy fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued for a fourth straight day on Wednesday, in the biggest escalation of a decades-old conflict in years that has killed dozens and left scores of others wounded.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said Armenian forces started shelling the town of Tartar on Wednesday morning, damaging “civilian infrastructure” and wounding people, while Armenian military officials reported that Azerbaijani forces were bombing positions of the Nagorno-Karabakh army in the north of the war-torn region.
Armenia has repeatedly alleged Turkey’s involvement in the conflict. On Wednesday, Armenian officials said Turkish drones and Turkish F-16 fighter jets were being used in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry demanded “immediate withdrawal of the Turkish armed forces, including the air force, from the conflict zone.”
Turkey has previously denied supplying arms to Azerbaijan, and the ex-Soviet republic said Ankara wasn't involved in the conflict.
The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted Sunday and has continued despite mounting calls for a cease-fire from around the globe.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian government since 1994 at the end of a separatist war following the breakup of the Soviet Union three years earlier.
The region in the Caucasus Mountains of about 4,400 square kilometers (1,700 square miles), or about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Armenian border. Soldiers backed by Armenia also occupy some Azerbaijani territory outside the region.
The conflict escalated on Tuesday, with Armenia alleging Turkish involvement and claiming that a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down an SU-25 from its air force in Armenian airspace, killing the pilot.
Turkey, which has been vocal about siding with Azerbaijan in the dispute, denied those claims, and so did Azerbaijan.
Hikmet Hajiyev, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev, told reporters via teleconference on Wednesday that the incident involved two Armenian SU-25 planes that reportedly crashed into a mountain, rather than an F-16 downing a SU-25.
“We have identified that two SU-25s took off from the territory of Armenia, and they lost their direction. They hit themselves on the mountains and they destroyed themselves,” Hajiyev said, accusing Armenia of hiding it from the public.
Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Wednesday that if Azerbaijan requests assistance, Ankara will provide it.
“We have said that if Azerbaijan wants to solve this on the field, we will stand by Azerbaijan. If Azerbaijan makes a request, we would do the necessary. But we see that Azerbaijan has sufficient capacity," Cavusoglu told the Anadolu news agency.
Meanwhile, European officials are seeking to bring the opposing sides to the negotiating table.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking on Wednesday at a news conference in Riga, Latvia, called for talks between France, Russia and the United States — the three countries co-chair the Minsk group, set up in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to resolve the conflict — to mediate.
“I will speak to President (Vladimir) Putin tonight and, I think, President (Donald) Trump tomorrow to discuss and propose an exit strategy” for the crisis, Marcon said.
The French president also condemned recent comments from Turkey as “reckless and dangerous" and said he was "extremely preoccupied by the belligerent messages from Turkey in the past hours.”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has called for an emergency meeting of the OSCE that would include Azerbaijan and Armenia to try and achieve a swift end to hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh and a resumption of negotiations.
“The escalation of tension in Nagorno-Karabakh has a serious impact on regional stability,” Dendias said, adding that he is in contact with his counterpart from Armenia and is planning a visit to Yerevan soon. Dendias also called on regional rival Turkey to end actions that would further escalate the conflict.
Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.