War is threatening to break out after Azerbaijan launched a series of explosive attacks against “terrorist” separatists wanting to join neighbouring Armenia.
The two South Caucasus nations last went into full-scale conflict three years ago, but tensions have been simmering under the surface over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The territory is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan, but it has become a breakaway enclave driven by ethnic Armenian separatists.
It’s understood both civilians and soldiers have been killed in the attack on Tuesday, with unverified reports saying 25 people, including two non-combatants died. It’s also reported 11 children were injured.
Azerbaijan leaders in the capital Baku ordered artillery strikes on what it called “Illegal Armenian military formations” urging them to hand over arms and dissolve their “illegal regime”.
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Pictures from the military operation show large explosions engulfing buildings with photographs emerging of cowering civilians seeking shelter.
In the Armenian capital Yerevan protesters angered by the strikes clashed with police as they called on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign. Ethnic Armenian authorities in the Caucasus Mountains region have urged Azerbaijan to sit down for talks.
Armenian ambassador to the UK, Varuzhan Nersesyan, told Channel 4 tonight: “Azerbaijan is fully committed to conduct an ethnic cleansing or even a genocide in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Azerbaijan and Armenia have faced off for more than three decades in a conflict over the mountainous territory. The most recent heavy fighting there occurred for six weeks in 2020. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry announced the start of the operation hours after it reported that four soldiers and two civilians died in land mine explosions in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ministry did not immediately give details but said front-line positions and military assets of Armenia’s armed forces were being “incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” and that only legitimate military targets were attacked.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry, however, denied its weapons or troops were in Nagorno-Karabakh and called reported sabotage and land mines in the region “a lie”.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiyan alleged that Azerbaijan’s main goal is to draw Armenia into hostilities.
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Ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement that the region’s capital of Stepanakert and other villages were “under intense shelling.”
The region’s military said Azerbaijan was using aircraft, artillery and missile systems and drones in the fighting. Video from the city showed a damaged residential building with shattered windows and damaged cars nearby.
Residents of Stepanakert moved to basements and bomb shelters, and the fighting cut off electricity. Food shortages persisted in the area, with the limited amount limited of humanitarian aid delivered Monday not distributed due to the shelling, which resumed in the evening after halting briefly in the afternoon.
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan said 25 people, including two civilians, were killed and 138 others, including 29 civilians with 11 children among them, were wounded. According to Stepanyan’s earlier statements, one child was among those killed.
The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, from large-caliber weapons, killing one civilian. Neither claim could be independently verified.
Earlier Tuesday, Azerbaijan said six people were killed in two separate explosions in the region that is partly under the control of ethnic Armenian forces.
A statement from Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry, state security service and prosecutor-general said two highway department workers died before dawn when their vehicle was blown up by a mine and that a truckload of soldiers responding to the incident hit another mine, killing four.
Nagorno-Karabakh and sizable surrounding territories were under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 end of a separatist war, but Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh during the 2020 fighting. That ended with an armistice placing Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Red Cross shipments of flour and medical supplies reached Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, but local officials said roads to the region were not fully open.
The hostilities come amid high tensions between Armenia and its longtime ally Russia. Armenia has complained repeatedly that the 2,000-member Russian peacekeeping force was unable or unwilling to keep the road to Armenia open, even though that duty was stipulated in the agreement that ended the 2020 war.
Armenia also angered Russia, which has a military base in the country, by holding military exercises with the United States this month and by moving toward ratifying the Rome Convention that created the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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