Azerbaijani and Armenian forces engaged in intense battles over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh on October 4, with the breakaway region’s capital and Azerbaijani cities also being hit with rocket and artillery fire in a major escalation.
Each side accused the other of targeting civilians as fighting in the long-simmering dispute over the territory shows no signs of abating since it flared-up with renewed vengeance on September 27.
The International Red Cross on October 4 condemned reports of “indiscriminate shelling and other alleged unlawful attacks using explosive weaponry in cities, towns, and other populated areas.”
More than 200 people have been killed since fighting erupted last week, including many civilians. The true number of casualties is believed to be higher as Azerbaijan has not published its military losses.
The fighting is the biggest escalation in years in the decades-old conflict over the region, which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists with close ties to Yerevan. Armenian forces also hold control over seven regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh authorities said October 4 that missile and artillery attacks on the capital Stepanakert and near-by city of Shushi continued for a third day, injuring an unspecified number of civilians and damaging infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said that Armenian forces targeted Ganca, the country’s second-largest city, with missiles and artillery in a significant escalation of the conflict beyond the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
In the evening, Azerbaijan said three missiles had targeted the city of Mingacevir, located 100 kilometers from the frontline and home to a strategic hydroelectric power plant and the biggest dam in Caucasus region.
Authorities said one rocket injured five civilians, while two others did not explode.
Two other rockets were said to have reached Xizi and Absheron districts, both near the capital Baku.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov said the shelling of Azerbaijan’s territory from Armenia is an open provocation that expands the area of the battle and added that Azerbaijan took “retaliatory measures.”
“Delivering fire on the territory of Azerbaijan from the territory of Armenia is clearly provocative and expands the zone of hostilities,” Hasanov said.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry denied the claims any missiles were fired from its territory on Ganca, Mingacevir, or other cities.
But Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto leader, Arayik Harutiunian, said his forces had targeted a military base in Ganca and that he later ordered a halt to the strikes to avoid civilian casualties.
He said the attack was “warning fire” and would “continue to other cities” in response to the Azerbaijani offensive.
Azerbaijan on October 4 claimed to have wounded Harutiunian in retaliation for the attack on Ganca, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reported.
Hikmat Hajiyev, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, said Harutiunian was hiding in a bunker and was wounded in a targeted attack. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
Both sides of the conflict regularly exaggerate losses inflicted on their opponent as part of a parallel information war.
In a televised speech in the evening on October 4, Aliyev issued a set of demands to halt the fighting that would be near-impossible for Armenia to accept.
Azerbaijan’s strongman president demanded that Armenia set a timetable for withdrawing from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories, saying that Azerbaijan would not end military action until that happened.
Aliyev said Azerbaijani forces were advancing in a week-long offensive to retake territories that they lost to ethnic Armenians in the 1990s. Azerbaijan’s military says it has retaken control of seven villages since fighting erupted.
“Azerbaijan has one condition, and that is the liberation of its territories,” he said. “Nagorno-Karabakh is the territory of Azerbaijan. We must return and we shall return.”
Turkey, which is openly backing Azerbaijan, has issued similar demands.
World powers have been calling for a cease-fire amid concerns that the violence could grow into a full-blown war between the archfoes, potentially further drawing in regional powers Russia and NATO-member Turkey.
The United States, France, and Russia – the co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group which has spearheaded peace efforts over Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – have called for an immediate cease-fire and resumption of negotiations over the territory.
Armenia has said it is willing to engage in peace talks through the OSCE.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a conflict over the mountainous region since the waning years of the Soviet Union. They fought a war that ended in 1994 with an uneasy cease-fire and an estimated 30,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Interfax, and Reuters