Fighting between Armenia, Azerbaijan dampens optimism for U.S. talks

(Updated with further comments by Aliyev from paragraph 13; on-ground developments from paragraph 16)

Continued fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has dimmed optimism for U.S.-sponsored talks later on Friday, Radio Free Europe reported.

The foreign ministers of the warring countries were due to meet separately with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo in Washington.

Pompeo has said he will tell the ministers that "the right path forward is to cease the conflict, tell them to de-escalate, that every country should stay out – provide no fuel for this conflict, no weapons systems, no support", according to Radio Free Europe.

Prospects for reaching a peace settlement are "very remote", Azeri President Ilham Aliyev told Nikkei Asia on Wednesday. Armenia does not see a diplomatic solution to the long-running conflict at the present time, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said.

The most recent fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on Sept. 27 and has since killed hundreds of people. It marked the biggest escalation of violence in a decades-old dispute over the region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since 1994.

Fighting in the enclave is persisting even after Russia brokered a second ceasefire between the two countries last weekend. A previous one agreed the weekend before failed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the total death toll in the fighting was nearing 5,000. The battles have displaced thousands of people, he said in a televised address on Thursday, according to Agence France Presse.

Putin said that he was in "constant" communication with Pashinyan and Aliyev to the point where he talked to them on the phone "several times a day".

French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke with both leaders on Thursday and met face-to-face with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, AFP said.

Both France and Russia, along with the United States, are co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which was set up in 1992 to mediate a peaceful settlement.

Russia is the dominant player in the Caucasus region and maintains a security pact with Armenia, a close ally. The agreement does not however cover Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow has also cultivated warmer relations with Azerbaijan in recent years. It sells weapons to both sides.

Turkey, a NATO member, has vowed to support Armenia “to the end” in the dispute. This week, its government said it was prepared to send military assets to Azerbaijan to strengthen Aliyev’s hand, if called upon.

On Thursday, Aliyev vowed to “break the back of Armenian fascism” to save Nagorno-Karabakh.

“We have many casualties, including children, women and the elderly. This once again shows the predatory nature of Armenian fascism,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency cited the president as saying in a statement.

“They want to destroy our cities; they want to break the will of the Azeri people. But they fail and become even more depraved. We take our revenge on the battlefield,” Aliyev said.

The Azeri Defence Ministry said its army gained control of important land and hills overnight Thursday, according to Anadolu.

It also stated that Armenian forces experienced a shortage of equipment, weapons, ammunition and food and soldiers brought in from Armenia refused to fight and defected.

The Karabakh military reported the situation remained unchanged along the front lines and that Azeri armed forces shelled the town of Askeran and the city of Martuni overnight, according to its official Twitter account.