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BAKU: Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched a military operation against the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and demanded the total withdrawal of Armenian forces from the disputed mountainous territory as a precondition for peace.

Fears of a fresh war have been growing in recent months, with Armenia accusing Azerbaijan of a troop build-up and decrying a blockade of its only land link to Nagorno-Karabakh.

An AFP journalist in the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert said blasts could be heard in the town.

Another AFP contributor said he could hear “non-stop shelling”, the sound of sirens and of a drone overhead.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said it was using “high precision weapons on the front line and in depth”.

“Localised anti-terrorist measures have been launched in the region,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said it had opened “humanitarian corridors and reception points” to allow civilians to leave.

Armenian separatists said two civilians were killed and 23 were wounded in the fighting, accusing Azerbaijani forces of “trying to advance” into Karabakh.

The ex-Soviet Caucasus rivals have been locked in a decades-long dispute over Karabakh with large-scale hostilities breaking out in the 1990s and in 2020.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Azerbaijan had begun a “ground operation aimed at ethnic cleansing of Karabakh Armenians”.

Pashinyan said the Armenian army was not involved in the fighting and the situation on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan was “stable”.

In televised comments, he urged Russia and the UN to “take steps”.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the government building in the Armenian capital Yerevan, according to images shown on TV, following calls for a protest to urge the government to respond to the Azerbaijani operation.

“We must not allow certain people, certain forces to deal a blow to the Armenian state,” Pashinyan said.

“There are already calls, coming from different places, to stage a coup in Armenia.”

Armenia’s foreign ministry condemned Azerbaijani “aggression” against Karabakh. “On September 19, Azerbaijan unleashed another large-scale aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, aiming to complete its policy of ethnic cleansing,” the foreign ministry said. It said Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region should “take clear and unequivocal steps to stop Azerbaijan’s aggression”.

A separatist organisation based in Armenia said on social media that “Stepanakert and other cities and villages are under intensive fire,” accusing Azerbaijan of launching a “large-scale military offensive.”

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