French President Emmanuel Macron has said he is sure Syrian fighters were operating in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia and Azerbaijan are engaged in heavy fighting.
Macron said he has evidence that fighters have travelled through the Turkish city of Gaziantep on their way to the conflict in the South Caucasus, where the fiercest clashes in years have killed nearly 130 people.
“We have information today that indicates with certainty that Syrian fighters from jihadist groups have transited through Gaziantep to reach the theatre of operations in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Macron said as he arrived for a summit with the European Union leaders in Brussels.
“This is a very grave new development,” Macron warned, saying he agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump “to exchange all the information [they] have about this situation and draw all necessary conclusions”.
Armenia has accused Turkey of sending mercenaries to back its ally, Azerbaijan, and on Monday the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Ankara had dispatched at least 300 proxies from northern Syria.
Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan by all means but has so far denied direct involvement in the conflict.
Macron this week condemned what he called Turkey’s “reckless and dangerous” statements backing Azerbaijan.
Claims of Turkish involvement in the conflict look set to colour Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels, which is expected to cover the bloc’s relations with Ankara as Greece and Cyprus push for a tough line against their old enemy over disputed east Mediterranean waters.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a separate statement that it had been informed of claims that mercenaries, sent from Libya and Syria, were involved in the fighting over the disputed territory.
The presence of such “illegal armed units” would pose a long-term security risk for all nearby countries, Russia’s Foreign Ministry added.
France, Russia and the US are co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, set up in 1992 to mediate in the decades-old conflict over the mountainous enclave.
On Thursday, they appealed for peace as the death toll rose in the heaviest clashes since the 1990s around Nagorno-Karabakh – part of Azerbaijan, but run by its mostly ethnic Armenian inhabitants.
“We call for an immediate cessation of hostilities between the relevant military forces,” the joint French, Russian and US statement said.
They urged the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan to “commit without delay to resuming substantive negotiations, in good faith and without preconditions” under what is called the Minsk process.
The recent fighting has raised concerns that the flare-up could escalate into an all-out war, as the combatants look to regional powers Turkey, which supports Baku, and Russia, which maintains a military base in Armenia, for support.