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Dozens dead as world leaders urge halt to Azerbaijan-Armenia clashes

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Armenian servicemen of the self-defense army of Nagorny-Karabakh fire a shell towards Azeri forces from their positions in the town of Martakert in Armenian-seized Azerbaijani region of Nagorny Karabakh on April 3, 2016. (AFP Photo/Vahram Baghdasaryan)

YEREVAN, Armenia (AFP) –  At least 39 people have died after deadly clashes between arch foes Armenia and Azerbaijan, as the latest violence in the decades-long territorial dispute sparked international calls Sunday to halt the fighting.

The worst skirmishes since 2016 have raised the spectre of a fresh war between the ex-Soviet rivals, locked since the early 1990s in a stalemate over the Armenia-backed breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh.

Seventeen Armenian separatist fighters were killed and more than 100 wounded in the fighting, Karabakh President Arayik Harutyunyan said, conceding that his forces had “lost positions”. Both sides also reported civilian casualties.

“We are tired of Azerbaijan’s threats, we will fight to the death to resolve the problem once and for all,” Artak Bagdasaryan, 36, told AFP in Yerevan, adding that he was waiting to be conscripted into the army.

Karabakh separatists said one Armenian woman and a child were killed, while Baku said that an Azerbaijani family of five died in shelling launched by Armenian separatists.

Azerbaijan claimed it captured a strategic mountain in Karabakh that helps control transport links between Yerevan and the enclave.

Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan in turn said Karabakh rebel forces killed “some 200 Azerbaijani troops and destroyed 30 enemy artillery units and 20 drones”.

Fighting between Muslim Azerbaijan and majority-Christian Armenia threatened to embroil regional players Russia and Turkey, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan calling on global powers to prevent Ankara’s involvement.

“We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus,” Pashinyan warned.

France, Germany, Italy, and the European Union swiftly urged an “immediate ceasefire”, while Pope Francis prayed for peace.

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “deep concern” on Sunday, and “strongly called for an immediate end to hostilities”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was also “extremely concerned” and urged the sides to stop fighting and return to talks.

The US State Department said it had contacted the two countries and called on them to “use the existing direct communication links between them to avoid further escalation”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the military flareup with Pashinyan and called for “an end to hostilities”.

But Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey blamed Yerevan for the flare-up and promised Baku its “full support”.

“The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted.

Karabakh President Harutyunyan said Turkey was providing mercenaries and warplanes to the fight, suggesting, “the war has already… (gone) beyond the limits of a Karabakh-Azerbaijan conflict.”

Azerbaijan accused Armenian forces of violating a ceasefire, saying it had launched a counter-offensive to “ensure the safety of the population”, using tanks, artillery missiles, combat aviation and drones

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