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Azerbaijan says Armenia targets cities outside conflict zone

A building burns after shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery during a military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh early Sunday.
A building in a residential area burns after night shelling by Azerbaijan’s artillery during a military conflict early Sunday in the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
(Areg Balayan / ArmGov PAN / Associated Press)

The fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continued Sunday over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijan accusing Armenia of targeting cities that are far beyond the conflict zone.

Hikmet Hajiyev, aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, said Sunday that Armenia targeted the cities of Ganja and Mingachevir with missile strikes. Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city and home to several hundred thousand people, is roughly 60 miles from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital. Mingachevir is about the same distance.

The clashes, which erupted Sept. 27 and have killed dozens of civilians, mark the biggest escalation in the decades-old conflict over the region, which lies within Azerbaijan but is controlled by local ethnic Armenian forces who are backed by Armenia.

Hajiyev on Sunday tweeted a video depicting damaged buildings, which he described as the result of “Armenia’s massive missile attacks against dense residential areas” in Ganja. It wasn’t immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the video.

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Armenia formally declared its independence Monday, making an even dozen of Soviet republics intent on breaking away as the empire falls.

Hajiyev said in another tweet Sunday evening that Armenian forces also hit Mingachevir, which “hosts a water reservoir and key electricity plant,” with a missile strike.

Armenia’s Defense Ministry denied the claims. Spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian wrote on Facebook that “no fire was opened from Armenia in the direction of Azerbaijan” and called the accusations “desperate convulsions of the Azerbaijani side.”

Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, said on Facebook that he ordered “rocket attacks to neutralize military objects” in Ganja but later told his forces to stop firing to avoid civilian casualties. His spokesman Vahram Poghosyan told Armenian media Sunday evening that there was no reason for Nagorno-Karabakh forces to target Mingachevir.

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Azerbaijani officials denied that any military objects had been hit in Ganja but said the attack caused damage to civilian infrastructure. One civilian was killed, and 32 others sustained injuries, authorities said.

“Opening fire on the territory of Azerbaijan from the territory of Armenia is clearly provocative and expands the zone of hostilities,” Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov said in a statement Sunday.

According to Hajiyev, no serious damage was inflicted on the infrastructure in Mingachevir, but “civilians [have been] wounded.”

As the fighting resumed Sunday morning, Armenian officials accused Azerbaijan of carrying out strikes on Stepanakert and targeting the civilian population there. Harutyunyan said that in response, Nagorno-Karabakh’s forces would target “military facilities permanently located in major cities of Azerbaijan.”

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In a statement issued later Sunday, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry rejected accusations of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, tweeted Sunday that the country’s troops “liberated from occupation the city of Jabrayil and several surrounding villages.” Nagorno-Karabakh’s officials rejected the claim as untrue, saying the territory’s army “is controlling the situation in all directions.”

Nagorno-Karabakh officials have said nearly 200 servicemen on their side have died in the clashes so far. Eighteen civilians have been killed and more than 90 others wounded. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t given details on their military casualties but said 24 civilians were killed and 111 others wounded on their side.

Nagorno-Karabakh was a designated autonomous region within Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. It claimed independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, about three months before the Soviet Union’s collapse. A full-scale war that broke out in 1992 killed an estimated 30,000 people.

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By the time the war ended in 1994, Armenian forces held not only Nagorno-Karabakh but substantial areas outside the territory’s formal borders, including Jabrayil, the town Azerbaijan claimed to have taken on Sunday.

This week’s fighting has prompted calls for a cease-fire from around the world. On Thursday, leaders of Russia, France and the United States — co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group, which was set up in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to resolve the conflict — issued a joint statement calling for an immediate cease-fire and “resuming substantive negotiations ... under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.”

Aliyev has repeatedly said that Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh is the sole condition to end the fighting.

Armenian officials allege that Turkey is involved in the conflict and is sending fighters from Syria to the region. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said earlier this week that “a cease-fire can be established only if Turkey is removed from the South Caucasus.”

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Poghosyan, the spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader, said on Facebook Sunday evening that since Azeribaijan has involved “terrorist mercenaries” in the region, “this means that the current situation gives us a legitimate right to move our operations to the entire territory of Azerbaijan to clear it of terrorist groups.”

Ankara has denied sending arms or foreign fighters, while publicly siding with Azerbaijan in the dispute.

On Sunday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on Ganja, saying it was proof of Armenia’s disregard for the law. Ankara accused Armenia of attacking civilian residential areas and claimed that the country could commit crimes against humanity.

“Armenia is the biggest barrier to peace and stability in the region,” the ministry said.

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