Azerbaijan vowed on Saturday to “avenge” the deaths of thirteen civilians in the night bombing of Gandja, the country’s second city. These strikes mark a further escalation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenian separatists.
A few hours before these strikes, shots had targeted the capital of the separatists, Stepanakert, and the town of Choucha, the majority of whose inhabitants had fled since the start of hostilities on September 27.
In Gandja, many houses were destroyed by shelling around 3 a.m. local time which killed thirteen civilians, including children, and left more than 45 injured, according to the public prosecutor. “We are going to take revenge on the battlefield,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev proclaimed in a speech.
He called his separatist enemy and his godfather, Armenia, in turn “dogs” and “fascists”. His Turkish ally accused Armenia of “war crimes”. The EU for its part “deplored” these strikes, and once again called on “all parties to stop targeting civilians”.
In Gandja, residents in tears fled in the night, some in pajamas and slippers, AFP noted. “All the houses around were destroyed. Lots of people are under the rubble,” laments Roubaba Jafarova, 65, in front of the remains of her house.
Dozens of rescuers searched for survivors with their bare hands and gathered shredded human remains in black body bags. “We cannot identify the bodies, we do not know if we will be able to identify them in the morgue. They are all in pieces”, said, terrified, Mayil Chakhnazarov, 36 years old.
The city of about 300,000 inhabitants has been struck several times since the start of the conflict, especially on Sunday when a missile had already killed ten people.
“Legitimate targets” in Gandja
The Armenian separatists noted Saturday for their part that Gandja shelters “legitimate targets”: air base, staff of a motorized brigade, special forces, operations center of the Azerbaijani defense, fuel depots and factories of ammunition.
They also accused Azerbaijan of having attacked civilian infrastructure in Karabakh during the night, requiring a response. Stepanakert was indeed shaken by explosions, according to AFP. In particular, a strike destroyed part of the roof of a shopping center and, further on, the windows of shops and a residential building were shattered.
“What happened there is insane. How the international community can be so indifferent!”, Gaïane Gharibian, a 45-year-old Armenian, who slept in the basement laments.
On the front, the fighting also continued. Ilham Aliev announced Saturday the capture of new territories, in particular Fizouli “city occupied for thirty years by wild animals”. This area forms one of the seven Azerbaijani districts which the separatists took control in the 1990s to form a protective glacis around the territory proper to Nagorny Karabakh.
These bombings, as well as the fighting on the front line, bear witness to the powerlessness of the international community for three weeks. For a week, a humanitarian truce agreement negotiated under the aegis of Moscow has never been applied. Washington and Paris once again insisted on Friday evening on the need to stop hostilities.
Azerbaijan has achieved territorial gains over the past three weeks without winning a decisive battle. Baku has so far not revealed the cost of the conflict, releasing no military, material or human toll.
The separatists claim to have killed thousands of men, admit having had to back down but claim to “control the situation”. Officially, they lost around 700 men, and half of the 140,000 inhabitants were displaced.
Nagorny Karabakh, mostly populated by Christian Armenians, seceded from Azerbaijan, a Turkish-speaking Shia Muslim, shortly before the breakup of the USSR in 1991, leading to a war that left 30,000 dead. A ceasefire, punctuated by clashes, had been in effect since 1994.