STEPANAKERT: Armenian and Azerbaijani forces exchanged heavy rocket and artillery fire as fighting intensified over Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday, with the breakaway region’s capital and Azerbaijan’s second-largest city hit.
Armenia said that Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city Stepanakert, which has been under shelling since Friday, was hit again on Sunday and journalists said there were regular explosions and clouds of black smoke rising in parts of the city.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Ganja, a city of more than 330,000 in western Azerbaijan, also came under fire, while Armenian-backed separatist forces claimed to have destroyed an airbase there.
The two sides accused each other of targeting civilian areas, as the conflict widened a week after heavy fighting broke out in the decades-old dispute over the ethnic-Armenian region.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have resisted international calls for a ceasefire and clashes have intensified in recent days, with both sides claiming victories on the front and saying they are inflicting heavy losses.
The two sides accuse each other of targeting civilian areas
Sirens were sounding and explosions were heard at regular intervals in Stepanakert, where residents were taking shelter including several families in the basement of the city’s Holy Mother of God Cathedral.
Sheltering with them, military chaplain Gor Yurjan said he had just returned from the front. “I am very worried that they are firing on civilians,” the 28-year-old said.
Armenia’s foreign ministry said Stepanakert and other towns had been hit, accusing Azerbaijani forces of “the deliberate targeting of the civilian population”.
There were reports of dead and wounded civilians in Stepanakert and the historic town of Shusha.
Azerbaijan said Ganja was under fire, including from areas outside of Karabakh, with at least one civilian killed.
“Armenian forces struck Ganja with rockets from Armenian territory,” said Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
He said Armenian forces had also used heavy artillery and rockets against the Azerbaijan towns of Terter and Goradiz.
Karabakh’s separatist forces said they had targeted and destroyed an airbase in Ganja, but Baku denied this as a “provocation”.
Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey accused Armenia of “targeting civilians” in Ganja and reiterated support for its fellow Turkic and Muslim country as “one nation, two states”.
Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan warned that it would now consider “military facilities in Azerbaijan’s big cities” as legitimate targets.
“I call on the residents of these cities to immediately leave,” Harutyunyan said in a post on Facebook.
Azerbaijani officials claimed on Sunday that Harutyunyan had been seriously wounded while in a bunker hit by bombing, but his office denied this.
Azerbaijan claims to have taken control of a string of settlements in recent days as well as a strategically important plateau.
On Sunday Aliyev said on Twitter that his forces had retaken the town of Jabrayil, part of an area outside Karabakh seized by the separatists in the 1990s as a buffer zone. Armenia denied the claim.
Authorities in both countries have reported nearly 250 dead since the fighting began, including almost 40 civilians.
Armenian separatist forces have reported more than 200 dead — including 51 on Saturday — while Azerbaijan has not released any figures on its military casualties.
Azerbaijan said on Sunday that two civilians had been killed in shelling on the southern town of Beylagan, where a journalist working with AFP saw residents picking through the rubble of destroyed homes.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2020