Armenia and Azerbaijan rejected calls for a ceasefire and accused each other of targeting civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday, as Russia and France repeated calls for peace talks amid the worst fighting in the breakaway region since the 1990s.
Azerbaijani and Armenian forces intensified their artillery firing on Thursday in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists who declared independence from Azerbaijan in a war from 1991-94.
That conflict, which killed 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, has been largely frozen in recent years, despite intermittent clashes.
But bellicose rhetoric from both sides suggested the fighting, in its fifth day on Thursday, could ignite a broader war in the Caucasus, a crossroads between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh was a “clash of civilizations and battle of survival” in which Armenia was fighting for global security against international terrorosim, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a statement.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said fighting would only end when Armenia withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian people "should not send their children to Azerbaijani lands," he said in a statement on Twitter on Wednesday.
Both sides claim to have inflicted heavy losses on the other and accuse the other of targeting civilians.
Azerbaijan has not acknowledged military casualties but its Prosecutor General's Office said 55 civilians had been hospitalised and 16 people killed following Armenian shelling of densely populated areas.
Armenia has reported the deaths of 104 soldiers, alongside seven civilians killed and 31 wounded.
In addition, two French journalists from Le Monde newspaper were seriously wounded by Azeri artillery fire on the town of Martuni, the Armenian government reported.
Amid worries over the potential regionalisation of the conflict, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a call on Thursday for a complete halt to fighting.
"President Macron and Putin agreed on the need for a joint effort to reach a ceasefire in the framework of Minsk," Mr Macron's office said in a statement after the two leaders spoke by telephone the night before.
Russia and France co-chair the Minsk group with the United States. The group of 13 countries which aims to resolve the conflict has not met since the latest fighting began.
The Kremlin said only "political and diplomatic methods" could resolve the crisis.
Mr Macron’s office said they “both "share concern about the sending of Syrian mercenaries by Turkey to Nagorno-Karabakh."
Russia, which is in a security treaty with Armenia, said Wednesday it was concerned by reports of "militants from illegal armed groups, in particular from Syria, Libya" being sent to the conflict.
Leyla Abdullayeva, the head of media at Azerbaijan’s foreign affairs ministry, denied the use of Syrian mercenaries, saying “Armenia is behind these allegations, which are not based on any facts”.
Meanwhile, Israeli “kamikaze drones” were being used in strikes on Armenian forces, the foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan’s president reportedly told Axios website. Hikmet Hajiyev said the Harop drones had "proved themselves very effective".
Aerial footage released by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry showed Armenian military vehicles exploding after being targeted by weaponised drones.
Israel reportedly supplies the bulk of Azerbaijan’s military hardware, while receiving a large proportion of its oil supply from Azerbaijan.