Azerbaijan launches deadly shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh in latest escalation with Armenians

Azerbaijan launched “anti-terrorist activities” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Tuesday, saying it wanted to restore constitutional order and drive out what it said were Armenian troops, a move that could foreshadow a new war.

In a statement announcing its operation, Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry spoke of its intention to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories, [and] neutralize their military infrastructure.” The government in Baku added it was only targeting legitimate military targets, using “high-precision weapons,” and not civilians.

But loud shelling was audible from unverified social media footage filmed in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, called Khankendi by Azerbaijan.

A separatist Armenian human rights official in Nagorno-Karabakh, Gegham Stepanyan, said on Tuesday that 25 people had been killed in Karabakh as a result of an Azerbaijani military offensive.

According to Stepanyan, two of the victims were civilians. Reuters could not verify his assertion.

Children eat sitting in a shelter during shelling in Stepanakert in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan after the attacks began. (Siranush Sargsyan/The Associated Press)

Baku announced its operation after complaining that six of its citizens had been killed by land mines in two separate incidents, something it blamed on “illegal Armenian armed groups.”

Armenia, which says its armed forces are not present in Karabakh, said in a statement via its defence ministry that the situation on its own border with Azerbaijan was stable.

Reuters could not immediately verify assertions from either side.

Ceasefire in 2020 after 2nd major modern conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh by Armenians, is a mountainous region at the southern end of the Karabakh mountain range, within Azerbaijan. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its 120,000 inhabitants are predominantly ethnic Armenians. They have their own government, which is close to Armenia but not officially recognized by Armenia or any other country.

Armenians, who are Christian, claim a long presence in the area, dating back several centuries. Azerbaijan, whose inhabitants are mostly Turkic Muslims, also claims deep historical ties to the region, which over the centuries has come under the sway of Persians, Turks and Russians.

A large explosion is shown in a rural valley.
In this photo taken from video released by the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on Tuesday, flames rise over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces’ positions in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Defence Ministry of Azerbaijan/The Associated Press)

Bloody conflict between the two peoples goes back more than a century, and Armenia and Azerbaijan have already fought two wars over Karabakh in the three decades since the Soviet Union — which they were both part of — collapsed.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, the First Karabakh War, which ended in 1994, claimed the lives of about 30,000 people, while displacing more than one million, mostly Azeris driven from their homes.

The Armenian side ended up in control of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and large parts of seven surrounding districts. But in 2020, Azerbaijan began a military operation and won resounding victory in 44 days, taking back the seven districts and about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

The use of drones bought from Turkey and Israel was cited by military analysts as one of the main reasons for Azerbaijan’s victory three years ago, when at least 6,500 people were killed.

Several people appear to be running down a tree-lined sidewalk in an urban setting.
People appear to run as gunfire and explosions are heard in Stepanakert, called Khankendi by Azerbaijan, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Tuesday. (Artsakh Public TV/Reuters)

Russia, which has a defence treaty with Armenia but also has good relations with Azerbaijan, negotiated a ceasefire.

Analysts say successive rounds of talks, mediated variously by the European Union, the United States and Russia, have brought the two sides closer to a permanent peace treaty, but a final settlement remains elusive. The most sensitive issue is the status of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.

Humanitarian aid concerns

Armenia has complained loudly that Russia’s war in Ukraine has distracted Moscow from acting as a guarantor of security in the South Caucasus.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia is in touch with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and has urged negotiations to resolve the Karabakh conflict, adding that Moscow considered ensuring civilian safety the most important issue.

Dozens of people are shown on a street in a demonstration, with a giant flag being waved.
People gather at the Armenia government building in protest on Tuesday in Yerevan after the attack by Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh (Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/The Associated Press)

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova earlier said Azerbaijan warned Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh about military action against separatists just minutes before starting it.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that its peacekeepers had evacuated almost 500 civilians from the most dangerous parts of the ethnic Armenian-controlled territory and provided medical help to the wounded, the RIA news agency reported.

The escalation occurred a day after badly needed food and medicine was delivered to Karabakh along two roads simultaneously, a step that looked like it could help ease mounting tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Until the last few days, Baku had imposed sweeping restrictions on the Lachin corridor — the only road linking Armenia with Karabakh — and had not allowed in aid, on the grounds that the route was purportedly being used for arms smuggling.

The European Union condemned on Tuesday the military escalation, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

The French Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday no pretext could justify the military operation Azerbaijan launched in Nagorno-Karabakh, adding it was calling for an immediate United Nations Security Council meeting on the conflict.

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