Clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces were raging on Monday over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region as fears grew for civilians after the two sides began shelling major cities.
Separatist forces in Karabakh — an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke away from Azerbaijan in the 1990s — reported firefights along the frontline and the regional capital Stepanakert under heavy artillery fire.
Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Armenian forces were shelling several towns, including the country’s second-largest city Ganja which was first hit on Sunday.
Increasing artillery fire on urban areas has raised concerns of mass civilian casualties if the fierce fighting, which has already killed nearly 250 people, continues to escalate.
The clashes broke out on September 27, re-igniting a decades-old conflict between the ex-Soviet neighbors over Karabakh and threatening to draw in regional powers like Russia and Turkey.
Neither side has shown any sign of backing down, ignoring international calls for a ceasefire and a return to long-stalled negotiations on the region.
Stepanakert, a city of some 50,000 in the heart of the mountainous province, has been under steady artillery fire since Friday, with residents cramming in to underground shelters.
The separatists’ foreign ministry said Monday that shelling of Stepanakert had resumed at 6:30 am (0230 GMT).
It released video footage of repeated bursts of heavy shelling and of debris from seriously damaged blocks of flats, claiming Azerbaijan had used cluster munitions.
Azerbaijan said Armenian forces were shelling Ganja and the towns of Beylagan, Barda, and Terter.
Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, accused the Armenians of “attacking densely populated civilian areas.” “Barbarism and vandalism. Sign of weakness and panic,” he wrote on Twitter.
The two sides have reported 245 deaths since the fighting erupted, including 43 civilians, but the real total is expected to be much higher as both sides are claiming to have inflicted heavy military casualties.
The separatist government has reported 202 deaths among its forces, while Azerbaijan has not released any figures on its military casualties.
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Sunday condemned the reports of “indiscriminate shelling and other alleged unlawful attacks using explosive weaponry in cities, towns and other populated areas”.
Civilians huddled on Sunday in the basement of Stepanakert’s stone-walled Holy Mother of God Cathedral, AFP journalists saw, seeking refuge as explosions and air raid warnings sounded.
A candle lights strained faces of civilians huddled in the basement of Holy Mother of God cathedral in Nagorno-Karabakh's main city Stepanakert, where they have sought refuge from fighting that erupted a week ago https://t.co/ti2H4MS0n5 pic.twitter.com/VCIMEtdZHQ
— AFP news agency (@AFP) October 5, 2020
Some residents were fleeing the city for Armenian territory, with many gathering in the border town of Goris hoping to find passage on to the capital Yerevan.
Azerbaijan said 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.
In a fiery address to the nation on Sunday, Aliyev set conditions for a halt to the fighting that would be near impossible for Armenia to accept.
He said Armenian forces “must leave our territories, not in words but in deeds,” provide a timetable for a full withdrawal, apologize to the Azerbaijani people and recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
‘Chase Them Like Dogs’
“Nagorno-Karabakh is our land. We have to go back there and we are doing it now,” Aliyev said. “This is the end. We showed them who we are. We are chasing them like dogs.”
Armenian foreign ministry spokeswoman Anna Nagdalyan said Baku was failing to “engage constructively” on the conflict, while Karabakh’s presidency threatened to “expand subsequent (military) actions to the entire territory of Azerbaijan.”
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned on Friday that Armenians were facing a “decisive moment” in their history and called on his people to stand together.
Russia, the United States, and France — co-chairs of a mediation group that has failed to find a political resolution to the conflict — have called for an immediate halt to the fighting.
Karabakh’s declaration of independence from Azerbaijan during the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a war in the early 1990s that claimed 30,000 lives.
Talks to resolve the conflict have made little progress since a 1994 ceasefire agreement.
Turkey is a strong ally of Azerbaijan, a fellow Muslim and Turkic country, and Armenia has accused Ankara of dispatching mercenaries from Syria and Libya to join the fighting.