YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Two French and two Armenian journalists were injured Thursday in the South Caucasus separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where heavy fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces this week marked the biggest escalation in years of a decades-old conflict.
The two Le Monde reporters were wounded in morning shelling in the town of Martuni, the newspaper said. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said they were being taken to hospital, and accused Azerbaijan of bombarding the Martuni region.
A cameraman with the Armenia TV channel and a reporter with the Armenian 24News outlet also sustained injuries in the Martuni shelling, Armenian officials said. It was unclear how badly the four journalists were hurt. A Russian journalist with the independent Dozhd TV channel was reported to have safely reached a bomb shelter.
Clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region within Azerbaijan that has been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian government since the end of a separatist war a quarter-century ago, broke out on Sunday and continued unchecked, killing dozens and leaving scores wounded. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have been blaming each other for continuing attacks.
The two ex-Soviet nations have been locked for decades in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where a separatist war was fought in the early 1990s, ending in 1994 — three years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The 4,400-square-kilometer (1,700-square-mile) enclave in the Caucasus Mountains, roughly the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, lies 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Armenian border.
Soldiers backed by Armenia occupy the region as well as some Azerbaijani territory outside of it.
The president of Azerbaijan said Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh was the sole condition to end the fighting. Armenian officials claim Turkey has become involved in the conflict, allegedly sending fighters from Syria to the region and deploying Turkish F-16 fighter jets to assist Azerbaijnai forces.
Turkey has publicly supported Azerbaijan in the conflict and said it would provide assistance if requested, but denies sending in foreign mercenaries or arms.
Continued fighting in the turbulent region prompted calls for a cease-fire from around the globe and raised concerns of a broader conflict potentially involving other regional powers.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday has expressed concern about Turkey allegedly sending Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan.
Macron's office said in a statement Thursday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the issue in a phone call Wednesday night, and both “share concern about the sending of Syrian mercenaries by Turkey to Nagorno-Karabakh." Macron's office did not provide further information about the mercenaries.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday expressed concerns over reports about “militants from illegal armed groups, in particular from Syria, Libya” being sent to the conflict zone in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ministry didn’t provide further details, but in a statement urged the “leadership of the states concerned to take effective measures to prevent the use of foreign terrorists and mercenaries in the conflict.”
Macron said he and Putin called for restraint and agreed upon the need for a joint effort toward a cease-fire, as part of international mediation efforts for Nagorno-Karabakh led by Russia, France and the U.S.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday refused to comment on Turkey's alleged involvement in the conflict, but said that “any statements about military support for one of the (opposing) sides” can provoke further escalation of tensions in the region.
“We believe that any participation of third countries in this confrontation can also have extremely negative consequences," Peskov told reporters.
Angela Charlton in Paris and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.