By Nvard Hovhannisyan and Nailia Bagirova
YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) – Armenia’s prime minister called on Monday for an international investigation into the presence of “foreign mercenaries” in Nagorno-Karabakh after ethnic Armenian forces said they had captured two mercenaries from Syria.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied the presence of foreign combatants in the conflict zone. Its ministry of defense was not immediately available for comment.
Fierce battles continued near the front line of the conflict over the mountain enclave and seven surrounding regions in which more than 1,000 people, and possibly many more, have been killed since fighting erupted more than a month ago.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
The conflict has brought into sharp focus the increased influence of Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a formerly Soviet region considered by Russia to be in its sphere of influence. Russia has a defense pact with Armenia.
Armenia’s foreign ministry said on Monday the Artsakh Defense Army, its name for the ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, had captured a second Syrian combatant over the weekend.
It said the fighter was from Syria’s Idlib province. Another fighter, from the city of Hama, was captured on Friday, it said.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in a Facebook post, said the involvement of “foreign mercenaries” was “a threat not only to the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia but also to international security, and this issue should become a subject of international investigation.”
The ethnic Armenian-controlled, Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry said battles took place overnight along the northwestern part of the front line. It said it had repelled a platoon of Azeri troops in fierce fighting.
Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said it had repelled an attack on its positions in the high ground of the Zangilan district, between the enclave and the Iranian border, while army units in the Gazakh, Tovuz and Dashkesan regions also came under fire.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev wrote on Twitter that Azerbaijan had retaken a further eight settlements in Zangilan, Gubadli and Jabrayil regions.
Azerbaijan’s advances on the battlefield since fighting began on Sept. 27 have reduced its incentive to strike a lasting peace deal and complicated international efforts to broker a truce. Three ceasefires have failed to hold.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s army says 1,177 of its soldiers have been killed. Azerbaijan does not disclose its military casualties, while Russia has estimated as many as 5,000 deaths on both sides.
(Reporting by Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan and Nailia Bagirova in Baku, Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Mark Heinrich)