Nagorno-Karabakh says its two largest cities under heavy attack

The Nagorno-Karabakh Emergency and Rescue Service said two of the enclave’s largest cities were under heavy attack by the Azeri military, Reuters reported on Friday.

The the rescue service said residential buildings and public infrastructure in the regional capital of Stepanakert were shelled, which killed three people, according to the news agency.

Several houses in Karabakh’s second-largest city, Shushi, were on fire from Azeri bombardment as well, it said. Shushi, known as Shusha in Azerbaijan, is of strategic importance to both sides.

The Azeri Defence Ministry said allegations that it had shelled civilian areas were “misinformation”, according to Reuters.

Smoke rises after shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery during a military conflict in Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. (AP Photo)

Two independent observers cited by Reuters said fighting appeared to be moving deeper into Nagorno-Karabakh and confirmed Azeri troops had stepped up attacks on both Stepanakert and Shushi.

Thomas de Waal, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book on the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, told Reuters the city of Shushi hold great importance to Azeris, as a cultural and historical centre where they had a majority population before the conflict began.

“It has great importance for Armenians too: it sits above Stepanakert and is the site of Karabakh’s cathedral,” he said.

Olesya Vartanyan, Crisis Group’s Tbilisi-based senior analyst for the South Caucasus, said that if Azerbaijan took control of Shushi, it would “automatically” gain control of Stepanakert as well.

“Even if Baku decides to stop the war after taking Shushi, this will still significantly decrease the chance of ethnic Armenians returning to their homes in Stepanakert,” she told Reuters.

Over a month of fighting between Armenian separatists and the Azeri military, which is backed by Turkey, represents the latest flare-up in a decades-long dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia and the United States have brokered a total of three ceasefires to help end the clashes, which have reportedly left more than 1,200 people dead. The truces have failed and the battles threaten to spread beyond the de facto independent state, which is located within Azerbaijan’s borders but controlled by ethnic Armenians.