Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh has intensified sharply, as both sides accused the other of targeting civilian areas with missiles.
Armenia claimed on Monday that Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, and the town of Shushi were being pounded “with great intensity,” while Azerbaijan claimed three of its towns, Beylagan, Terter and Barda, were coming under attack. Hundreds of people have been killed so far in nine days of fighting over the mountainous territory, which is situated entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan, but which broke away in a war that started amid the fracturing of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The latest outbreak of violence, the worst between the neighbours in decades, escalated suddenly on Sunday when Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, came under attack, killing one civilian and injuring four more.
The attack on Ganja, which lies outside Nagorno-Karabakh, came after sustained and deadly attacks on Stepanakert and other towns in the territory, where journalists reported regular explosions and clouds of black smoke.
“The missile strike on Ganja is a huge and very demonstrative escalation, a warning shot,” Laurence Broers, associate fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank told VICE News.
He said the attack had fuelled perceptions in Azerbaijan that Armenia was trying to drag Russia into the conflict, by provoking Azeri strikes on Armenian territory. Armenia has a defence pact with Moscow, but it doesn’t apply to Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian-controlled enclave within Azerbaijan which is not recognised by any government.
He said there were indications that the attacks on Azerbaijan outside the combat zone had “galvanised Russia into action.”
“The question is what can Russia do, with valued relations with Azerbaijan to preserve, no legal basis for intervening in [Nagorno-]Karabakh itself, and arm's-length military capability.”
Azerbaijan blamed Yerevan for the attacks, saying its radar systems showed the strikes were launched from Armenian territory.
But Armenia’s Defence Ministry denied any attacks on Azerbaijan, calling the claims “complete misinformation.” The leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, said on Facebook that his forces had targeted a military airbase in Ganja, but had then halted the attack to avoid civilian casualties.
He warned his forces would now consider “military facilities in Azerbaijan’s big cities” as legitimate targets, and called on civilians in those cities to leave.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has condemned the reports of attacks on civilian areas.
“The ICRC strongly condemns the reported indiscriminate shelling and other alleged unlawful attacks using explosive weaponry in cities, towns and other populated areas, in which civilians are losing their lives and suffering terrible injuries,” Martin Schüepp, the organisation’s regional director for Eurasia said.
While Russia, France, the United States and the European Union have called for a ceasefire, there are no signs of the hostilities waning.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev gave a bellicose televised address to the nation on Sunday, saying his forces were retaking territory lost to ethnic Armenians in the 1990s, and would not stop their military push until Armenia gave a concrete timeline for withdrawing from the secessionist enclave. He said his government had taken the unresolved matter of Nagorno-Karabakh into its own hands, after diplomatic efforts over the years had failed to find a solution.
“Azerbaijan has one condition, and that is the liberation of its territories,” he said. “The Azeri soldier is chasing them like a dog, the Azeri soldier is standing at their posts, we have taken their weaponry, we are carrying out the mission of liberation.”
Analysts say Azerbaijan has a larger and more advanced military, and appears to be gaining the upper hand militarily, making greater advances than it did during a previous outbreak of fighting in 2016. Its forces are also being assisted by Syrian mercenaries brought to the conflict by close ally Turkey, according to Armenia, Russia and France — although Baku and Ankara deny this.
But Broers said that because Azerbaijan was not releasing data on the number killed in action, it wasn’t clear what price it had paid on the battlefield.
He said the “upper hand” was also a relative consideration in the battle. “’Not losing’ is winning for the Armenians, whereas Azerbaijan has staked a lot on tangible, game-changing outcomes,” he said.