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Kremlin says Karabakh tensions rising, Armenia warns of 'critical' humanitarian situation

FILE PHOTO: An ethnic Armenian soldier looks through binoculars as he stands at fighting positions near divided Taghavard village in Nagorno-Karabakh region

MOSCOW (Reuters) -The Kremlin expressed concern on Thursday that tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh were increasing, as Armenia's prime minister described the situation in the blockaded territory as "critical".

Armenia has in recent weeks repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of massing forces around Karabakh, which Baku has effectively blockaded since December 2022, causing acute hunger. A deal struck to unblock roads to the territory last weekend has yet to take full effect.

In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "Of course, we are concerned that the tension is not subsiding and in some areas is even on the increase."

He said Russia would stay in contact with Yerevan and Baku and remain a reliable guarantor of security in the South Caucasus. Moscow has expressed irritation with both countries in recent days.

Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Armenians. With support from Yerevan, the region won de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a lengthy war in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan retook large swathes of territory in and around Karabakh in a second war in 2020, leaving the region dependent on a single road - the so-called Lachin Corridor - that links it to Armenia. That road has been closed since December 2022, causing food, fuel and medicine shortages.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has also tried to help broker a lasting peace, expressed concern on Sunday about deteriorating conditions in the territory.

"(He) has engaged with the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan to make it clear we want the Lachin Corridor to be opened immediately to address the really dire humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a briefing on Thursday.

Armenian state news agency Armenpress on Thursday quoted Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as saying the humanitarian situation inside Karabakh was desperate. He said a Russian aid truck which Karabakh authorities allowed to enter the region from Azerbaijan on Tuesday had not alleviated the crisis.

Armenpress also quoted Pashinyan as saying that Azerbaijan was continuing to mass troops along the frontlines with Karabakh and Armenia, a charge that Baku has repeatedly denied.

Twice on Thursday, Azerbaijan's defence ministry said its forces had come under fire from Armenian units along the two countries' shared border. Armenia's defence ministry denied opening fire on Azerbaijani positions.

(Reporting by ReutersWriting by Felix Light in Tbilisi and David Ljunggren in OttawaEditing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Heavens)