A missile strike leveled a number of homes in Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganja on Saturday, killing and seriously injuring people in their sleep in a sharp escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The attack in the early hours, when another missile hit another part of Ganja and a third reached the nearby strategic city of Mingecevir, came hours after Azerbaijani forces shelled the ethical Armenian separatist region capital Stepanakert.
There was no early official information about the toll from any of the attacks, but AFP reporters in Ganja saw a rescue team remove black bags of body parts from the scene.
The escalation of violence further undermines international efforts to calm a resurgence of fighting between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis before drawing regional powers into Russia and Turkey.
An AFP team in Ganja saw rows of houses turned into rubble by the strike, which shattered the walls and tore down the roofs of buildings in the surrounding streets.
People ran outside in shock and tears, stumbling through muddy alleys in their slippers, some wearing bathrobes and pajamas.
A witness said he saw rescuers pull a small child, two women and four men from the garbage for minutes immediately after the strike.
“We were sleeping. The children were watching television,” said Rubaba Zhafarova, 65, in front of his destroyed house.
“All the houses here are destroyed. Many people are under the rubble. Some are dead, others are wounded.”
The attack came just six days after a missile hit another residential part of the city with more than 300,000 people, killing 10 civilians.
Hikmat Hajiyev, an assistant to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, tweeted that according to “original information, more than 20 houses were destroyed” on Saturday.
Passports, keys, bracelets
Rescuers regularly called for silence so they could detect sounds from survivors as the hours went by, pulling passports, keys, bracelets and clothing out of the trash.
They called in sniffer dogs and watered the suffocating columns of dust down with hoses from a fire truck.
“One woman was missing her feet. Another was missing an arm at the elbow,” said Elmir Shirinzaday, 26.
AFP later saw three more people carried on stretchers, although it was not clear whether they were dead or alive.
“My wife was there, my wife was there,” a man cried inconsolably as he was walked toward an ambulance by a paramedic.
Around the same time in the town of Mingecevir, an hour’s drive north of Ganja, AFP heard the impact of a huge explosion that shook buildings.
Mingecevir is protected by a missile defense system because it is home to a strategic dam, and it was not immediately clear whether the missile was destroyed in the air or had an impact.
The Ministry of Defense said Mingecevir had come “under fire”, but provided no other immediate details.
An Azerbaijani official said another missile hit a separate industrial district in Ganja around the same time.
No immediate details of this second attack were known.
The decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted again on September 27 under highly controversial circumstances and has so far killed more than 700 people, including nearly 80 civilians.
The mountainous western region of Azerbaijan has remained under separatist ethnic Armenian control since a ceasefire in 1994 ended a brutal war that killed 30,000.
But Armenia, which supports Nagorno-Karabakh but does not recognize its independence, has admitted that Azerbaijani forces have made significant gains along the front in the past week.
AFP was led on Friday by the Azerbaijani military to a settlement recaptured in the southern part of the conflict zone near the Iranian border.
Officials said they last checked the settlement of Jabrayil, which includes strategic heights overlooking a fertile valley, during the post-Soviet war.
The current escalation is the deadliest and longest since the six-year conflict.
The shelling of Stepanakert and the strikes against Ganja followed a joint call by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to “end the bloodshed as soon as possible.”