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Families shelter from shelling and artillery in Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan launches military offensive

Civilians have described sheltering from heavy shelling and artillery fire in Nagorno-Karabakh amid a military operation by Azerbaijan aimed at targeting “terrorists” in the breakaway region.

There are reports of several civilian casualties after Azerbaijan launched the “anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the region’s human rights ombudsman, with fears this could escalate into a full-scale war with Armenia.

Nina Shahverdyan, 23, who lives in Stepanakert, known in Azerbaijan as Khankendi, the de-facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, says she is sheltering from the shelling in her basement with her family.

“Everyone is very scared,” she tells i, as the sound of artillery fire rattles in the background. “You can hear they are shooting right now.”

“It’s not only in Stepanakert it’s all over Nagorno-Karabakh – in all the cities and near the borders,” she adds.

Despite Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence stating that only “legitimate” military facilities and infrastructure are being targeted, there are reports of civilian residential areas being hit by shelling.

Siranush Sargsyan, a journalist based in Nagorno-Karabakh shared a video of her neighbourhood in Stepanakert on X, formerly Twitter, which had been damaged by shelling. The top floors of a house had been completely destroyed. “This is a building next to us with no military target in vicinity,” she wrote.

There are multiple civilian casualties, with two civilians killed – including one child – and 23 injured, according to Nagorno-Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan. He confirmed that civilian infrastructure was also being targeted and shared photos of injured children being treated in hospital.

Azerbaijan’s authorities also accused Armenian forces of killing a civilian, which brought the civilian death toll of Tuesday’s hostilities to at least three.

The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence announced the start of the “anti-terrorist operation” hours after four soldiers and two civilians died in landmine explosions in Nagorno-Karabakh – called Artsakh by Armenians. The region, which is populated by mostly ethnic Armenians, has experienced months of clashes and mounting tensions.

“They say it is only targeting military spaces and that it is an [anti-terrorist operation] but there are no terrorists in Nagorno-Karabakh,” says Ms Shahverdyan.

She says her cousin, who is 21, is currently fighting alongside her friends and classmates in the Artsakh Defence Army. “They are not terrorists, they are part of our families and they are just protecting us right now.”

In a statement, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said they intended to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories”.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry has denied that the country’s weapons or troops are present in Nagorno-Karabakh and called “all rumors” about sabotage and planting landmines in the region “a lie and fabricated”.

There are concerns that this could be the beginning of another full-scale war over the region. In 2020, thousands were killed in a 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire.

“I think this is a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan anyway because we are all Armenian citizens and they are targeting us and want us [Armenians] to leave,” says Ms Shahverdyan.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman
Children caught up in the violence (Photo: Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman)
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman
Destroyed buildings in Stepanakert (Photo: Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman)
Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman
Destroyed buildings in Stepanakert (Photo: Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman)

Azerbaijan’s defence military said it had open the Lachin Corridor for civilians to evacuate to Armenia, but Ms Shahverdyan says she is not planning to evacuate.

“We cannot leave and let them kill our brothers and friends; our soldiers. So that’s why my family and I and nobody I know is planning to evacuate because this is our home and if we get out then they will kill everybody here,” she says.

“It looks like another genocide,” says Narine Abrahamyan-Tovmasyan, who is based in Yerevan, Armenia, but has family living in Nagorno-Karabakh. “We are very scared – children have already been injured and killed. What more can I say?”

The fighting comes after a nine-month blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan, preventing the flow of food, medicine, fuel and other supplies reaching around 120,000 people. This caused many to accuse the country of committing ethnic cleansing.

The Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinian, has convened a meeting of the country’s security council.

“First of all, Russia must take steps and, secondly, we expect the UN Security Council to also take steps,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell, has condemned Azerbaijan’s military escalation.

“There is an urgent need to return to dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians. This military escalation should not be used as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population”, he said, according to Reuters.

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