Azerbaijani Forces Close in on Nagorno-Karabakh's Biggest City

Three ceasefires have failed and thousands are feared dead in the past six weeks as Azerbaijan and Armenia fight over the breakaway territory

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Ethnic Armenian soldiers ride a car passing the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia near Vardenis, Nov. 8, 2020.
Ethnic Armenian soldiers ride a car passing the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia near Vardenis, Nov. 8, 2020. Credit: AP Photo

Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership said on Monday it had lost control of the mountain enclave's second-largest city and that Azerbaijani forces were closing in on Stepanakert, its seat of power.

After six weeks of heavy fighting, Azerbaijan said on Sunday it had captured Shusha, which is known by Armenians as Shushi and sits on a mountain top overlooking Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's biggest city.

Nagorno-Karabakh's leaders had on Sunday denied losing control of Shusha, which is bordered by sheer cliffs and could serve as a staging post for an Azerbaijani assault on Stepanakert, military analysts say.

But Vahram Poghosyan, a spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan, acknowledged the loss of the mountain-top city on his official Facebook page. "A chain of misfortunes follows and Shushi city is not in our control. We should keep it together as the enemy is near Stepanakert," he wrote. Poghosyan confirmed to Reuters that the post was genuine.

A woman walks past a store damaged by recent shelling, in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital of Stepanakert on November 4, 2020. Credit: Karen MINASYAN / AFP

Shushi, or Shusha, is located about 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of Stepanakert and is culturally significant to both sides. The loss of the city is a big blow to ethnic Armenians in their battle to keep control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway territory which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

Emboldened by Turkish support, Azerbaijan says that since September 27, it has retaken much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in a war that killed an estimated 30,000 people in the 1990s. Armenia has denied the extent of Azerbaijan's territorial gains and said heavy fighting was still under way on Monday around Shushi, or Shusha.

Several thousand people are feared killed in the flare-up of the conflict. Three ceasefires have failed in the past six weeks and Azerbaijan's superior weaponry and battlefield gains have reduced its incentive to seek a lasting peace deal.

Russia, which held vast influence in the South Caucasus during Soviet times, has a defense pact with Armenia but also has good relations with Azerbaijan, a gas and oil-producing state whose pipelines have not been affected by the fighting. Military analysts say direct Russian military involvement in the conflict is unlikely unless Armenia itself is deliberately attacked, and that Turkey will probably not step up its involvement if Azerbaijani advances continue.

With its armed forces outgunned by Azerbaijan, Armenia has avoided direct military intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh. The state of its economy, hit by the coronavirus pandemic, could also be a constraining factor.

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