Fighting on the ground between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces is intensifying as they approach the Upper Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, and civilians rush to leave the city. The authorities of the enclave have ordered the evacuation of the civilian population as a “temporary measure”, as confirmed by an official source to this newspaper, due to the “infernal bombings” of Baku on Stepanakert in another escalation of the conflict. Azerbaijan has assured this Sunday that its army has taken control of the city of Shusha, a few kilometers from the capital of Upper Karabakh, which may mark a strategic moment in the fighting. The Administration of the region and the Armenian Government have denied this and assure that the fighting continues.
More than 120,000 civilians have had to leave their homes during the recent outbreak of hostilities that began on September 27, according to Unicef. Now, most of those who chose to stay in Upper Karabakh are putting their belongings in cars to leave the region, according to videos posted on social media, reflecting traffic jams on the main road leading from the enclave to Yerevan.
The new escalation in this conflict by the mountainous region, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated mainly by Armenians and controlled by a self-proclaimed republic since 1994, has already claimed some 5,000 lives between both sides, as mentioned last week by the Russian president , Vladimir Putin. Not just the military: some 50 Armenian civilians have been killed and 146 injured in Upper Karabakh, according to the region’s human rights defender. Baku reports 92 civilian fatalities and 400 injuries from the Armenian bombings.
“Shusha has been liberated, Shusha is Azerbaijani, Karabakh is Azerbaijani,” announced the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, in a televised speech to the nation on Sunday. “We have achieved this historic victory on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table,” insisted the president, who has promised to continue the fight until Armenia withdraws from the territory. “The fight at Shushi [como llaman los armenios a la ciudad] keep going. Wait and believe in our troops, ”a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Defense replied on social media. Also a European diplomatic source that handles information about what happens on the ground, from where most of the media have also been evacuated, has pointed out that the fighting does continue, but that the outcome may be “a matter of hours.”
Armine Grigoryan, assistant to the president of Upper Karabakh (the self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh), has insisted that a tough battle for the city is unfolding. He maintains that Aliyev’s message is “propaganda” directed not so much at Azerbaijan but above all at “demoralizing” the Armenians. Aliyev’s announcement sparked celebratory rallies in various cities in Azerbaijan.
Two weeks ago, Azerbaijani troops had positioned themselves just five kilometers from Shusha, after capturing much of southern Karabakh, and launched incursions by small units to harass the Armenian lines and, also, according to various sources, to burn and terrorize civil settlements. However, this weekend – while world attention was focused on the United States – the Baku Army launched a much larger offensive with the participation of ground troops, artillery and the air support of armed drones.
Shusha, the traditional capital of Karabakh until the Soviet authorities founded Stepanakert in 1923, has great symbolic value for both Armenians and Azerbaijan and was a mixed city until the early 1990s.
“The situation is tense and it is being fought in Shushi,” said the Karabakh government source. The city is also of great military importance: it is located on a hill overlooking Stepanakert, some ten kilometers away (already in the war of the 1990s it served as the base for Baku to bomb the Karabakh capital, mostly Armenian), and also It is located on the main road that connects Upper Karabakh with Armenia, commonly known as the “Lachín corridor”. In this way, the offensive itself effectively cuts the main supply line from Armenia, although there is a second road that connects further north but is difficult to access.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated the advance of his ally, Azerbaijan on Sunday. “The joy of our Azerbaijani brothers who liberated their occupied cities and Karabakh step by step is also our joy,” said the president, who discussed the conflict with his Russian counterpart on Saturday. Russia, which is an ally of Yerevan and Baku but has a defense agreement with Armenia, is trying to preserve its hegemony in the region, which Ankara disputes. This Sunday, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, and the Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, met with the President of Azerbaijan in Baku.