Azerbaijan accused Armenia on Wednesday of deliberately stoking unrest in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, following a shootout there in which Azerbaijan said 15 soldiers had been killed.
The Azeri Defence Ministry said 12 Armenian forces and three Azeri soldiers died in Tuesday's clashes in the disputed enclave, seized by pro-Armenian forces from Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s. Armenia did not immediately confirm the report.
A death toll of 15 would mark the worst clash in recent years between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, who are still technically at war with each other.
Armenia has been volatile since last Saturday, when President Robert Kocharyan imposed a state of emergency following mass protests against last month's presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged.
"The Armenian side resorted to provocations on the frontline in a bid to switch the attention of the international community and its own citizens from internal tensions to an external enemy," said Khazar Ibrahim, an Azeri Foreign Ministry spokesman.
"Azerbaijan will never resort to provocations, but will give a proper response to them."
Armenia's defence ministry had no immediate information on the incident. Nagorno-Karabakh's defence ministry confirmed a shootout had taken place, but said it was unaware of casualties.
Kocharyan, himself a native of Nagorno-Karabakh, was due to give a news conference later on Wednesday.
Robert Simmons, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, said the alliance was ready to help facilitate the peace process.
"I think there is a chance for settlement and we will work for it," he was quoted as saying on a visit to Moscow by Russian news agencies. "We are closely watching the peace process."
Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, broke away from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s, sparking a 1992-94 war between Armenian-backed separatists and the Azeri army.
Over 35,000 people were killed in the war and over one million people were displaced. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but the territory remains under Armenian control, there are sporadic clashes along the front line and the search for a lasting peace is stalled.
Azerbaijan is a major oil producer and home to important gas and oil pipelines carrying energy from the Caspian Sea to world markets, which pass close to the border with Armenia.
Armenia has no oil production or pipelines running through its territory.
Last Mod: 05 Mart 2008, 11:07