Nagorno-Karabakh says its two largest cities under fierce attack

Published November 7, 2020
Rescuers remove debris following what is said to be recent shelling in the city of Stepanakert during a military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in this handout photo released on Nov 6. — Reuters
Rescuers remove debris following what is said to be recent shelling in the city of Stepanakert during a military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in this handout photo released on Nov 6. — Reuters

STEPANAKERT: Three civilians were killed as Azerbaijani forces shelled the main city of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region on Friday, Armenia said, following weeks of fighting over the mountainous province.

Defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan published photos showing rescue workers in camouflage and orange helmets removing rubble from a building in Stepanakert whose walls were collapsed and roof was caved in. “The rocket hit a residential house, killing three civilians,” Stepanyan said.

For weeks Armenian separatists in Karabakh have been fighting Azerbaijan’s forces, which are working to wrest control of the region that claimed independence following a war in the 1990s.

The most recent flare-up in the fighting that erupted late September has killed more than 1,000 people, including civilians, but the real human cost of the conflict is believed to be much higher.

Stepanyan said earlier that Azerbaijan was also shelling the town of Shusha, a strategic settlement and home to an iconic Armenian cathedral that was damaged in shelling last month with several journalists injured.

The fighting has persisted despite attempts by France, Russia and the United States to broker a lasting ceasefire that would allow the two sides to return to the negotiating table.

Those three countries make up the Minsk group of mediators which helped broker a truce between the ex-Soviet rivals in 1994 but have lacked clout to find a lasting solution to the long-simmering standoff.

Both sides have accused the other of targeting civilian areas and the United Nations this week decried indiscriminate attacks that could amount to “war crimes”.Azerbaijan denied the reports of shelling in Stepanakert. Two independent observers said fighting appeared to be moving deeper into the enclave, with Azeri troops stepping up attacks on its biggest two cities.

At least 1,000 people — and possibly many more — have died in nearly six weeks of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflict has underlined the influence of Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, in a former Soviet region long dominated by Moscow, which has a defence pact with Armenia. It also threatens the security of Azeri oil and gas pipelines.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Emergency and Rescue Service said residential buildings and public infrastructure in Stepanakert had been targeted.

Three sources working in Stepa­nakert said that the city — known in Azerbaijan as Khankendi — had come under heavy shelling late on Thursday.

Shushi, 15 km to the south and the enclave’s second-largest city, had also come under bombardment overnight and several houses were on fire, the Emergency and Rescue Service said. The city is of strategic importance to both sides.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said allegations that it had shelled civilian areas were “misinformation”.

It has previously accused Armenian-controlled forces of shelling cities under its control, including Terter and Barda, as well as Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan. Dozens were killed in those attacks.

Thomas de Waal, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book on the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, said the conflict appeared to be moving toward a potentially bloody battle for Shushi, known to Azeris as Shusha.

“Shusha has great importance for Azerbaijanis, as a cultural and historical centre and the town where they had a majority population before the war,” de Waal said.

“That is almost certainly why their military operation was diverted from Lachin towards the city,” he said. “It has great importance for Armenians too: it sits above Stepanakert and is the site of Karabakh’s cathedral.”

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2020

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