Half of the population of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region have been displaced in clashes between Armenian forces and Azerbaijan as Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the end to a “tragedy” that shows no sign of abating.
The fighting in one of the most combustible frozen conflicts left over after the fall of the Soviet Union erupted on September 27 and so far neither side has shown a willingness to compromise.
The conflict has gained an international dimension that has alarmed the West, with Turkey supporting Azerbaijan and Armenia hoping that Moscow, which has so far stayed on the sidelines, could help its cause.
“Of course this is a huge tragedy. People are dying, there are heavy losses on both sides,” Putin said during an interview with state-run television.
— Nagorno Karabakh Observer (@NKobserver) October 6, 2020
Even if the longstanding conflict could not be resolved, a ceasefire must be agreed “as quickly as possible”, he added.
Intermittent shelling by Azerbaijan’s forces has turned Karabakh’s main city Stepanakert into a ghost town dotted with unexploded munitions and shell craters.
Much of the Stepanakert’s 50,000-strong population has left, with those remaining hunkering down in cellars.
They were disturbed by air raid sirens throughout the night as multiple explosions went off in a city plunged into total darkness.
The city was hit by new strikes in the morning, with smoke visible and the noise indicating the source was a drone, an AFP correspondent said.
— Catherine Norris Trent (@cntrentF24) October 6, 2020
“According to our preliminary estimates, some 50 percent of Karabakh’s population and 90 percent of women and children — or some 70,000-75,000 people — have been displaced,” Karabakh rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told AFP Wednesday.
Azerbaijan has accused Armenian forces of shelling civilian targets in urban areas, including its second-largest city of Ganja.
Prosecutors spokeswoman Gunay Salimzade said the 427 dwellings populated by some 1,200 people had been destroyed since the current conflict.
The International Committee of the Red Cross at the weekend condemned “reported indiscriminate shelling and other alleged unlawful attacks”, saying “scores” of civilians had already lost their lives.
“Two countries, one nation.”
Baku and Yerevan have for decades been locked in a simmering conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and attempts to find a final resolution have always met with deadlock.
It broke away from Baku in a 1990s war that claimed the lives of some 30,000 people and declared independence.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s 140,000 inhabitants are almost exclusively Armenians. It remains acknowledged by the international community as part of Azerbaijan and no state, including Armenia itself, recognizes its independence.
Sporadic fighting has erupted frequently since a May 1994 ceasefire, most notably in 2016 in an eruption many saw as a brief war.
But analysts say that a game-changing element this time is the wholehearted involvement of Turkey, which has reportedly sent pro-Ankara Syrian fighters to boost Azerbaijan and also home-produced drones that have already been deployed with success in Libya and Syria.
In an interview with AFP Tuesday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Turkey’s “full support” had motivated its ally Azerbaijan to reignite fighting, describing the role of Armenian forces as a “counter-terrorism operation”.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 1,200 fighters have been sent by Turkey and at least 64 have already died.
But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday the world should back Azerbaijan as the “side of those who are right”, describing Armenia as the “occupier”.
Armenian dependence on Russia
Ex-Soviet master, Russia has so far kept its distance in the conflict as other troubles mount, such as the protests in neighboring Belarus, the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and now unrest in Kyrgyzstan.
It has cordial relations and arms cooperation with both sides. But it has a military base in Armenia and Yerevan is a member of a Russia-led regional security group while Baku is not.
Pashinyan told AFP he was confident Russia would come to its aid due to the two countries’ membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation military alliance (CSTO).
Putin in his interview emphasised that Moscow would fulfil its obligations within the CSTO, which analysts sometimes describe as a Russian NATO.
But pointedly, he noted: “The hostilities, which to our great regret, continue to this day, are not taking place on the territory of Armenia.”
Most of the confirmed deaths are from the Armenian side, which has reported 240 fatalities among separatist fighters. Azerbaijan is not releasing any figures on its military deaths.
Background of the conflict
The Caucasus is a strategically important mountainous region in south-east Europe. For centuries, different powers in the region – both Christian and Muslim – have vied for control there.
Both modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the Soviet Union. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is an ethnic-majority Armenian region, region officially a part of Azerbaijan. The Soviets gave control of the area to Azerbaijan.
During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis became victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing, which resulted in numerous casualties and displacement of large groups of people. By 1992 the conflict had escalated into a full-scale war. In February 1992 the capital of Karabakh, Khankendi, was under a blockade by Azerbaijani forces.
The town of Khojaly was on the road from Shusha and Khankendi to Agdam and had the region’s only airport. The airport was of vital importance for the survival of the population in Karabakh, which had no land connection with Armenia and was under a total blockade by Azerbaijan. According to reports from Human Rights Watch, Khojaly was used as a base for Azerbaijani forces shelling the city of Stepanakert.
Azeri massacre in Nagorno-Karabakh
The indiscriminate shelling and sniping killed or maimed hundreds of civilians, destroyed homes, hospitals and other objects that are not legitimate military targets, and generally terrorized the civilian population.
Khojaly was shelled by Armenian forces almost daily during the winter of 1991–1992, and people grew accustomed to spending nights in basements.
During the winter of 1992, Armenian forces went on the offensive, forcing almost the entire Azerbaijani population of the enclave to flee, and committing what HRW describes as “unconscionable acts of violence against civilians” as they fled.
In 1988 the town had 2,135 inhabitants. Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh War and the population exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Meskhetian Turk refugees leaving Central Asia and subsequently settling in Khojaly, this number had grown to about 6,000 by 1991.
In October 1991, the Nagorno Karabakh forces cut the road connecting Khojaly and Aghdam, so that the only way to reach the town was by helicopter. Local OMON forces defended Khojaly under the command of Alif Hajiyev, which numbered about 160 or so lightly armed men. Before the attack, Khojaly was shelled daily and was totally blockaded, with no supply of electricity, gas, and water.
The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh made several calls to be transferred to Armenian authority control in the following decades. But it was only as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s that Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament officially voted to become part of Armenia.
Azerbaijan sought to suppress the separatist movement, while Armenia backed it. This led to ethnic clashes, and – after Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Moscow – a full-scale war.
Tens of thousands died and up to a million were displaced amid reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres committed by both sides.
Armenian forces gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh before a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared in 1994. After that deal, Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but since then has mostly been governed by a separatist, self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians and backed by the Armenian government.
It also established the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, separating Armenian and Azerbaijan forces.
GVS News Desk