The leader of Armenian separatists in Azerbaijan’s illegally occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region said on Thursday that Azerbaijani forces were closing in on the town of Shusha, whose capture would mark a turning point after a month of fighting.
In a video recorded outside the town’s famed cathedral, separatist leader Arayik Harutyunyan warned that advancing enemy forces were “five kilometres (three miles) at the most” from the town.
“The enemy’s main goal is to capture Shushi… whoever controls Shushi controls Artsakh,” he said, using the Armenian names for the town and Nagorno-Karabakh.
He called on Armenians to come to the defense of the strategically important town, the second-largest in Karabakh after the main city Khankendi (Stepanakert).
“In the next few days we need to reverse this situation at the front and punish the enemy right at the gates of Shushi. Let’s unite and fight together,” he said.
Gaining control of Shusha would be a major victory for Azerbaijani forces, who have been making gains against Armenian separatist fighters since new fighting erupted over Nagorno-Karabakh a month ago.
The town is located on strategic heights over Stepanakert and on the road linking the city with Armenian territory.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a bitter conflict over Karabakh since Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control of the mountainous province in a 1990s war that left 30,000 people dead.
Karabakh’s self-declared independence has not been recognised internationally, even by Armenia, and it remains a part of Azerbaijan under international law.
The heaviest fighting since a 1994 ceasefire erupted on September 27 and has persisted despite intense diplomatic efforts to bring it to a halt.
The two sides have three times agreed to ceasefires — the latest in a US-brokered deal at the weekend — but the truces have all quickly fallen apart.
The fighting has intensified in recent days including with renewed shelling and rocket attacks on civilian areas.
Since the clashes over the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region erupted on Sept. 27, Armenia has repeatedly attacked Azerbaijani civilians and forces, even violating three humanitarian cease-fires since Oct. 10.
At least 90 civilians have been killed and 392 injured in Armenia’s attacks on Azerbaijani civilian settlements since Sept. 27, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan reported Thursday. Around 2,406 houses, 92 apartment buildings and 423 public buildings were demolished or became unusable.
Relations between the two former Soviet republics have been tense since 1991 when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent regions.