Azerbaijan on Sunday demanded the Armenian withdrawal from Nagorno Karabakh where shelling in urban areas intensified, raising concern for civilians, on the eighth day of fighting between Armenian separatist forces and the Azerbaijani army.
“I have only one condition” for a ceasefire, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in a televised address to the nation broadcast in the evening.
“The armed forces (Armenian, editor’s note) must leave our territories,” he said, also asking that the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian “apologize to the Azerbaijani people” and “say that Karabakh is not is not Armenia ”.
Throughout the day, the two sides made more belligerent declarations as the bombardments intensified, targeting in particular the pro-independence capital Stepanakert, Azerbaijan’s second city.
Faced with “the increase in the number of victims within the civilian population”, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov expressed his “concern” and reiterated his call for “a ceasefire as soon as possible”.
Since Friday, Stepanakert has been the target of artillery strikes, forcing the population into hiding. The intensified rocket fire hit its center and the outskirts on Sunday, AFP journalists said.
In the afternoon, Shusha, a town of 4000 inhabitants, was in turn hit by Azerbaijani gunfire.
Bombs in the yard
Nagorno Karabakh leader Araiyk Haroutiounian said that in retaliation for the strikes on Stepanakert, military infrastructure in “big cities” of Azerbaijan, located further away from the front, had been targeted.
In the evening, fighting continued “across the front line,” as the Nagorno Karabakh army repelled a new Azerbaijani offensive, according to Armenian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian.
The separatists announced on Sunday that they had “destroyed” the airport in Azerbaijani second largest city, Gandja, which Azerbaijan denied, claiming civilians had been killed.
Other Azerbaijani cities have been hit, Baku said: Horadiz, Beylagan and Terter.
Azerbaijani and Armenians, who systematically deny the military successes announced by the enemy camp, also accuse each other of targeting civilians.
“This is their military strategy”, commented an adviser to the Azerbaijani presidency, Hikmet Hajiyev.
A Beylagan resident, interviewed by AFP, said her house had been partially destroyed the day before.
“I was baking bread when I heard explosions, I open the door and I see bombs falling in the yard,” said the woman.
Successes and denials
As in previous days, both sides claimed various successes on the battlefield.
On Sunday, Azerbaijan claimed to have seriously injured the president of the self-proclaimed republic and captured Jebrail, an Azerbaijani city of 9,000 inhabitants controlled since the 1990s by Armenian separatists despite being outside the territory of Karabakh. The Armenian side denied these two announcements.
The Karabakh presidency assured that its army “totally controlled the situation in all directions”.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said on Saturday that Armenia was facing perhaps “the most decisive moment in its contemporary history”.
In Yerevan, the capital, many residents went to light candles at Saint Sarkis Church. “I came to ask God for peace, for our country and our soldiers,” said Yerevan woman Aytsemik Melikian.
The toll is growing
Nagorny Karabakh, mostly populated by Armenians, seceded from Azerbaijan after the fall of the USSR, leading to a war in the early 1990s that left 30,000 dead. The front has been almost frozen there since despite regular clashes.
The two sides accuse each other of the resumption of hostilities on September 27, a crisis among the most serious, if not the most serious, since the ceasefire of 1994, raising fears of an open war between Armenia and Azerbaijan .
The death toll, still very partial, as Baku does not disclose its military losses, rose to 251: 209 separatist fighters, 18 civilians from Karabakh and 24 Azerbaijani civilians. But each side claims to have killed more than two thousand enemy soldiers.
A direct conflict between these two former Soviet Caucasian republics could have unforeseeable consequences, several powers competing in the region: Russia, the traditional regional arbiter, Turkey, allied with Azerbaijan, or even Iran.
The Turks are already accused of adding fuel to the fire by encouraging Baku to carry out a military offensive and are strongly suspected of having deployed pro-Turkish Syrian mercenaries in Karabakh.