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Nagorno-Karabakh: death toll rises as latest violence condemned by Russia and US

Dozens of people – both civilians and troops – have been killed and hundreds wounded in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to local officials, after Azerbaijan launched attacks on the disputed region.

Azerbaijan’s presidential administration said what it described as an “anti-terrorist operation” would continue until “illegal Armenian military formations” surrendered and the separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh dismantled itself.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous area in the volatile wider South Caucasus region, is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory. But part of it is run by separatist Armenian authorities who say the area is their ancestral homeland. The region has been at the centre of two wars – the latest in 2020 – since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan said 27 people, including two civilians, were killed and more than 200 others were wounded. According to Stepanyan’s earlier statements, one child was among those killed, and 11 children were among those injured.

The Azerbaijani prosecutor general’s office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, using large-calibre weapons, killing one civilian.

Neither claim could be independently verified.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken called on Azerbaijan to halt its operation immediately, saying it was worsening an already dire humanitarian situation – a reference to a lengthy de facto blockade of the region by Baku.

Map of Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia, which says its armed forces are not in Karabakh and that the situation on its own border with Azerbaijan is stable, called on members of the UN security council to help and for Russian peacekeepers on the ground to intervene.

Russia, which brokered a fragile ceasefire after a war in 2020 which saw Azerbaijan recapture swathes of land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost in an earlier conflict in the 1990s, called for all sides to stop fighting.

“We urge the conflicting parties to immediately stop the bloodshed, stop hostilities and eliminate civilian casualties,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry announced the start of the operation on Tuesday, saying frontline positions and military assets of Armenia’s armed forces were being “incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” and that only legitimate military targets were attacked.

Armenia’s foreign ministry, however, denied its weapons or troops were in Nagorno-Karabakh and called reported sabotage and landmines in the region “a lie”. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashiyan alleged that Azerbaijan’s main goal was to draw Armenia into hostilities.

Ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement that the region’s capital of Stepanakert and other villages were “under intense shelling”. The region’s military said Azerbaijan was using aircraft, artillery and missile systems and drones in the fighting.

Armenian police officers guard the entrance to the government building during clashes with protesters on Tuesday evening. Photograph: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images

Video from the city showed a damaged residential building with shattered windows and damaged cars nearby.

Residents of Stepanakert moved to basements and bomb shelters, and the fighting cut off electricity. Food shortages persisted in the area, with the limited amount of humanitarian aid delivered on Monday not distributed due to the shelling, which resumed in the evening after halting briefly in the afternoon.

A Baku defence ministry statement said Azerbaijani forces had so far seized more than 60 military posts and destroyed up to 20 military vehicles along with other hardware.

Nagorno-Karabakh and sizeable surrounding territories were under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 end of a separatist war, but Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh during the 2020 fighting. That ended with an armistice placing Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The hostilities come amid high tensions between Armenia and its longtime ally Russia. Armenia has complained repeatedly that the 2,000-member Russian peacekeeping force was unable or unwilling to keep the road to Armenia open, even though that duty was stipulated in the agreement that ended the 2020 war.

Armenia also angered Russia, which has a military base in the country, by holding military exercises with the United States this month and by moving toward ratifying the Rome Convention that created the international criminal court, which has indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of protesters gathered on Tuesday in central Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some clashed with police, who reportedly used stun grenades. A total of 34 people – 16 policemen and 18 civilians – were injured in the clashes, Armenia’s health ministry said. About half of them continue to receive medical assistance, the ministry said.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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