Yerevan, Armenia – Frozen conflict’ flares up! Artillery fired by ethnic Armenian forces landed in several Azerbaijani-controlled villages in the Terter district north of Stepanakert.
Much of Terter has been under the control of the ethnic Armenian separatists since a 1994 cease-fire was reached between Azerbaijan and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, allowing the area to serve as a buffer zone along the tense Line of Contact.
In Azerbaijani-controlled parts of the district, most villagers were evacuated when fighting in the “frozen conflict” flared up again on September 27 and threatened to boil over into all-out war.
By September 28, shells fired by Armenian forces were landing in the village of Shikharkh. Azerbaijani officials say two civilians were killed there when a shell struck a multistory building in the village.
Another shell hit a boiler house that supplies heat for residential buildings in Shikharkh.
Local villager Hicran Amrahova says Azerbaijani Service that even if the fighting is brought under control in the weeks ahead, the damage will make it difficult for many residents to survive through the winter in Shikharkh.
“The boiler house provides heating for the residents,” Amrahova says. “Also hot water. Look, the door was destroyed and the metal water tanks are damaged. They can’t do anything to our army, so they kill civilians” and make it impossible to live here.
Farther north, at Gashalti in the Azerbaijani-controlled region of Naftalan, shelling from Armenian forces killed local villager Elbrus Gurbanov and four members of his family while they were sheltering at home.
An elderly woman, seeing their bodies lined up in front of the house, fell to her knees screaming amid the carnage as a correspondent from Azerbaijan reported from the scene.
Claims and Counterclaims
There are numerous reports of civilian casualties in other villages in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as well as along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry says the first civilian casualty on Armenian soil since the fighting broke out was on September 29, when the town of Vardenis came under an artillery-and-drone attack from Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said the attack was in response to shelling by an Armenian Army artillery unit at Vardenis that had targeted the Dashkesan region inside Azerbaijan. Armenia denied Azerbaijan’s claim.
In fact, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of firing into their territory far from Nagorno-Karabakh — the worst fighting in the area since the 1990s.
Armenia and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have described the fighting as a “wholesale attack” by Azerbaijan.
In Baku, officials initially said that Azerbaijani forces were responding to an Armenian attack.
Later, they said the fighting was “for the liberation of territories from occupation” — a reference to Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent district of Azerbaijan that are under the control of the Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian forces.
Warning Against War Crimes
Human Rights Watch says that regardless of who is responsible for escalating the conflict, civilians are once again caught up in the fighting.
“All sides should remember that attacks targeting civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes,” Williamson said on September 30. “This is true even if they are carried out in reprisal for indiscriminate attacks by the adversary.”
Human Rights Watch said all sides must, at all times, distinguish between combatants and civilians and should respect the absolute ban against targeting civilians or carrying out attacks that indiscriminately harm civilians.
Confirmation of events on the ground has been difficult since the escalation.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have both declared martial law and have begun to mobilize their troops — including reservists who’ve been called upon to deploy to the combat zones.
Both countries have laws that restrict reporting about the conflict that is not based on “official” sources.
Azerbaijan has also limited Internet access to prevent sensitive strategic information from being revealed on social media or messaging apps.
But the extent that the fighting has stoked nationalist sentiments in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is clear from social-media posts in both countries.
In Azerbaijan’s Xacmaz region along the coast of the Caspian Sea, a crowd of residents gathered outside the local commissariat to cheer and wave goodbye to busloads of reservists called up for military service.