Azerbaijan said on Sunday that its forces had captured the key city of Shusha from Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Armenia insisted on fighting for the strategically important area in progress.
Capturing Shusha would be a major victory for Azerbaijan six weeks after new fighting broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke free from Azerbaijan’s control in the 1990s.
The fortress city is located on cliffs about 15 kilometers from Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city Stepanakert and on the main road through the region to the territory of Armenia, which supports the separatists.
Both sides have reported heavy clashes around the city in recent days, after Azerbaijani forces swept across the southern flank of Nagorno-Karabakh and pushed through their mountain passes.
In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev announced that the city had been captured.
“With great pride and joy, I inform you that the city of Shusha has been liberated,” said Aliyev, dressed in military fatigue and standing in front of an Azerbaijani flag.
“Our liberation march continues. We will go to the end, until the occupied territories are completely liberated,” Aliyev said.
Celebration in Baku
Flag-waving Azerbaijanis were celebrated in the capital Baku after Aliyev’s announcement, with cars honking their horns as residents crowded the city’s streets despite coronavirus restrictions.
“I did not leave the house for a week, but today I came out to say that Shusha has been liberated. We are happy, congratulations to all my people,” said 32-year-old Baku resident Shargiya Dadashova.
Armenian officials said the battle was far from over.
“The fighting continues in Shushi, wait and believe in our army,” said Armenian Defense Ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan, using the Armenian name for the city.
Armenian spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said there was “the most brutal battle” for the city, while the Armenian government said taking Shusha was an “unattainable nightmare for Azerbaijan”.
“Despite heavy destruction, the fortress city can withstand the blow of the opponent,” it said.
On the streets of the Armenian capital Yerevan, residents said they did not believe the city had been taken.
“To know who controls Shushi, we will listen to the commanders of our army, not Aliyev,” said 50-year-old Arman on downtown Abovyan Street.
“In any case, I can assure you that the war will not end if the Azerbaijanis take Shushi.”
Shusha had been a majority city in Azerbaijan before the 1990s conflict and has been a rallying cry for Baku authorities promising to retake Nagorno-Karabakh.
New clashes broke out in late September between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-backed separatists over control of Karabakh, which declared its independence almost 30 years ago.
That declaration has not been recognized internationally, not even by Armenia, and it is still part of Azerbaijan under international law.
The latest inflation has been the worst in decades, with more than 1,000 people confirmed dead including dozens of civilians, although the number of deaths is believed to be much higher.
The fighting has continued despite several attempts by Russia, France and the United States to help reach a ceasefire.
The three countries are the “Minsk group” of mediators who helped mediate a ceasefire between former Soviet rivals in 1994 but have failed to find a lasting solution to the far-flung conflict.
Diplomatic efforts seemed to intensify as fighting raged around Shusha, with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday speaking by telephone to Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Turkey is a key ally of Azerbaijan, and on Sunday Erdogan congratulated Baku on his claim to retake Shusha, saying it was “a sign that liberation for the rest of the occupied territories is imminent”.
Turkey’s intervention would be the key to any agreement to stop the fighting, and a plan was announced on Sunday to agree on a ceasefire and deploy Russian and Turkish peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ankara has been a strong supporter of Azerbaijan, a Muslim and Turkish country, while Moscow has a defense pact with Armenia and a military base on its territory.
Aliyev met on Sunday with Turkish foreign and defense ministers in Baku.
Dmitry Trenin, a political analyst and director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the conflict had reached a “crucial point”.
“Russia and Turkey are completing the methods of (a) ceasefire, Armenian withdrawal, corridors and peacekeepers,” he wrote on Twitter. “New regional order sealed.”