By Stefan J. Bos
Shocked survivors are grieving between rubble in Azerbaijan’s second-largest city of Ganja. “Pull yourself together,” a policeman told a crying man. They are among the latest victims of battles between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The fighting continues despite a truce that came into effect on Saturday to end the deadliest clashes over the mountainous enclave in decades.
Gajan residents said a missile hit their residential neighborhood, killing and injuring several people, including children. Hikmat Hajiyev, an adviser to Azerbaijan’s president, blames Armenia for the attack. “Gajan city is more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from the theater of military operations. What was the reason to attack this city,” he complained, standing between destroyed homes.
“There are no military targets here. In no way it can be justified from military necessity. But what we see here is Armenia’s purpose of killing civilians. It shows once again the true face of Armenia,” Hajiyev added.
But the Armenian defense ministry called these accusations “an absolute lie.” It accused Azeri forces of continuing to shell populated areas insight Nagorno Karabakh including the region’s biggest city Stepanakert.
Catholic and other church leaders have also expressed concerns about the shelling of the historic Holy Savior Cathedral in Nagorno Karabakh’s Shusha city, an important site for the Armenian Apostolic Church. Rubble was strewn on the floor. Pews were knocked over, and the interior was covered in dust from parts of the building’s limestone walls that had been hit.
Nagorno Karabakh lies technically inside Azerbaijan, but it is under ethnic Armenian control. Arayik Harutyunyan is President of the contested region. Speaking to reporters, he accused Azerbaijan of “violating humanitarian rules by attacking people in Nagorno Karabakh.” He said the situation calmed down Sunday but added, “the frontline remains tense.”
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia have been building over the summer. It spilled into direct clashes on September 27 and has since killed hundreds of people.
Analysts say the timing is significant as outside powers that have mediated in the past – namely Russia, France, and the United States – are distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and a list of world crises from Lebanon to Belarus.
There is international concern that the conflict could once again lead to a new broader war. Past outbreaks of fighting have killed some 30,000 people since 1988. Forces loyal to Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed on a ceasefire in 1994, but isolated clashes have continued.