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What is behind the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

As fierce fighting continues between bitter rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia for a breakaway region, fears of a regional war that could lure Russia and Turkey grow.

The two former Soviet republics reported that dozens of fighters were killed and hundreds injured by the outbreak of hostilities on Sunday.

On Tuesday, both accused each other of firing directly into each other’s territory beyond the conflict zone, as civilian deaths rose and fighting raged for the third day.

As violence escalates, NBC News examines key players and what̵

7;s behind the recent fighting.

What is Nagorno-Karabakh?

At the heart of the conflict is Nagorno-Karabakh, a slightly larger mountainous region than Rhode Island. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been de facto under Armenian control since the early 1990s.

Its assignment to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era was contested by its Armenian ethnic majority. This led to a war after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s and Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to declare independence.

Doctors help a man said to have been injured in clashes in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh in this photo released by the Armenian Foreign Ministry on Monday. Armenian Foreign Ministry via AFP – Getty Images

About 30,000 died in the conflict, which also displaced around 1 million before the ceasefire in 1994. Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has remained a separatist region within Azerbaijan.

There is local leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the territory, which is home to around 150,000 people, relies on Armenia for financial support.

The long-running negotiations mediated by Russia, the United States and France have seen little progress and there have been periodic clashes at the borders of the region.

Why are there fights now?

Tensions between the two sides simmered over the summer, leading to deadly clashes in July, leading to hostilities on Sunday.

The July escalation was perceived as a setback for Azerbaijan, which would lose a high-profile general in the fighting, said Kevork Oskanian, a political science researcher at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Sunday’s clashes may have been an Azerbaijani attempt to save face, Oskanian said.

But while the latest fighting began over the weekend, the roots of the conflict go back centuries.

Armenians see Nagorno-Karabakh as the Artsakh province of their ancient kingdom, Oskanian said.

Meanwhile, the area has central cultural importance to Azeris, who trace Shusha in today’s Nagorno-Karabakh to the 18th-century Karabakh khanate.

While the religion is used by both sides for propaganda purposes, both in mostly Christian Armenia and mainly Muslim Azerbaijan, Oskanian said the conflict is almost exclusively about secular nationalism competing on both sides.

“On the Armenian side, the argument is often heard that this is a struggle for life and death, that if their side were to lose, it would mean the annihilation of the Armenians of Karabakh and, perhaps, of Armenia itself,” he wrote in an e-mail. “On the Azerbaijani side, people talk about the importance of Karabakh for their sense of what it means to be Azerbaijani.”

What is the role of Turkey?

Turkey has cultural, economic and political ties with Azerbaijan, and the two nations also held large military exercises in July and August.

The strongman president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Monday that his country will side with “the brotherly Azerbaijan will do all its resources and its heart”.

Turkey is trying to bolster internal legitimacy by supporting fellow Turkish nation Azerbaijan, Laurence Broers, a member of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said in an email.

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“He has recent battle experience in several regional theaters, and he also has a defense industry that is passionate about new markets,” Broers said.

Pashinyan, the Prime Minister of Armenia, called on the international community to stop any possible interference from Turkey, which, he said, would destabilize the region.

In what could be a major escalation of violence on Tuesday, Armenia said one of its warplanes was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet, killing the pilot, but Ankara has denied any involvement.

Armenian officials also accused Turkey, a NATO member, of providing Azerbaijan with fighters and weapons from Syria. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey deny this.

Turkey had a bitter dispute with Armenia over the mass killing of 1.5 million Armenian ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, centered in present-day Turkey, in the early 20th century, which l ‘Armenia considers it a genocide. The Turkish government has loudly denied that the killings constitute genocide.

Who else is involved?

Russia remained the most active international player in the conflict and the main mediator.

Moscow seeks to maintain good relations with both sides of the conflict and to deepen its influence in the region, Oskanian said. The Kremlin also does not want tensions to get out of control and attract outside powers, especially Turkey, he added.

While the United States remains a mediator in the conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh has not been given priority by Washington since 2001, Broers said.

The recent flare-up caught America’s attention, however, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging both sides to end the violence on Tuesday.

Reality star Kim Kardashian West, who has Armenian roots, also commented, urging “diplomatic measures to prevent unnecessary escalation and tragedy” in a series of tweets Sunday, calling on Azerbaijan to “cease all offensive use of force”.

What’s next?

The worst scenario is an all-out war involving Russia and Turkey, experts say, including Broers.

The conflict could destabilize the South Caucasus region – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – which serves as a corridor for pipelines that transport oil and gas to world markets.

But Broers and Oskanian said pipelines are not the main consideration, although they could become if the conflict continues.

“The oil and gas pipelines are quite close to the current front line. A few tens of kilometers in fact, ”said Oskanian.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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