A Russian military helicopter has been shot down over Armenia, threatening to draw Moscow further into an escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has left thousands dead.
The Russian Mi-24 military helicopter was shot down on Monday by a surface-to-air missile while escorting a convoy from a Russian military base in the country. Two Russian servicemen were killed in the attack, Moscow said, and another was injured. The Russian defence ministry said it was investigating who was behind the attack.
Later on Monday evening, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry took responsibility for the attack on the Russian helicopter and apologised, saying that Baku was willing to pay compensation.
Armenia’s emergency ministry reported that the crash took place near the village of Yeraskh, which is in southern Armenia near the border with Azerbaijan.
That is far from the fighting in the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan has launched a bloody offensive to retake the mountain enclave from de facto Armenian control. The attack appeared to come from across the border in the Azerbaijani-held Nakhchivan region.
The attack will test Russia’s willingness to stay on the sidelines of the conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijan, both ex-Soviet nations with which Russia maintains good relations and arms contracts. Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey, a regional rival which Moscow has both courted and countered by backing rival sides in Syria.
Moscow has said it will honour a commitment to defend Armenia under a military treaty if fighting spills beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory but has been controlled by an Armenian-backed administration since 1994.
But Moscow has largely stood by as Azerbaijan’s forces have moved through the mountain enclave, claiming to capture the mountaintop town of Shusha and approaching the region’s largest city of Stepanakert.
A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman played down the likelihood of military intervention, urging both sides to end hostilities but said that Moscow “does not support a forcible settlement of this crisis.”
Azerbaijan on Monday released its first evidence that it had taken the city of Shusha (called Shushi in Armenian), including a short video showing Azerbaijani troops raising a flag over the city administration.
An official in the Nagorno-Karabakh administration confirmed it had lost control over Shusha on Monday and warned that an Azerbaijani offensive was close to Stepanakert, the region’s largest city.
“Shushi is entirely outside of our control,” Vahram Poghosyan, the spokesman for the Nagorno-Karabakh administration, wrote on Facebook on Monday. Poghosyan did not immediately respond for comment, but he did confirm his remarks to Reuters and local Armenian media.
However, other local and Armenian officials denied that Shusha had been taken. In a statement on Monday evening, the prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said that the “battle for the city of Shushi is continuing.”
“The [Nagorno Karabakh] defense army and militia are firmly standing on their native soil, and we will continue fighting against the enemy till the end,” he said.