STEPANAKERT: Clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have displaced half of the population of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, an official said on Wednesday, as Russian President Vladimir Putin urged an end to a “tragedy” that shows no sign of abating.
The fighting in one of the most combustible frozen conflicts left over after the fall of the Soviet Union erupted on Sept 27, with Azerbaijan insisting the Armenian-held region must return to Baku’s control.
The conflict has gained an international dimension that has alarmed the West, with Turkey supporting Azerbaijan and Armenia hoping that Moscow, which has so far stayed on the sidelines, could step in.
“Of course this is a huge tragedy. People are dying, there are heavy losses on both sides,” Putin said during an interview with state-run television.
Even if the longstanding conflict could not be resolved, a ceasefire must be agreed “as quickly as possible”, added the Russian president, who earlier held his first telephone talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev since the latest fighting began.
Intermittent shelling by Azerbaijan’s forces has turned Karabakh’s main city Stepanakert into a ghost town dotted with unexploded munitions and shell craters.
Much of Stepanakert’s 50,000-strong population has left, with those remaining hunkering down in cellars.
They were disturbed by air raid sirens throughout the night as multiple explosions went off in a city plunged into total darkness.
The city was hit by new strikes in the morning, with smoke visible and buzzing indicating the source was a drone, a correspondent said.
“According to our preliminary estimates, some 50 per cent of Karabakh’s population and 90 per cent of women and children — or some 70,000-75,000 people — have been displaced,” Karabakh rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan said on Wednesday.
Azerbaijan has accused Armenian forces of shelling civilian targets in urban areas, including its second-largest city of Ganja.
Prosecutors’ spokeswoman Gunay Salimzade said the 427 dwellings populated by some 1,200 people had been destroyed since the start of the current conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Baku in a 1990s war that claimed the lives of some 30,000 people. The Armenian separatists declared independence.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s 140,000 inhabitants are now almost exclusively Armenians after the remaining Azerbaijanis left in the 1990s war. It remains acknowledged by the international community as part of Azerbaijan and no state, including Armenia itself, recognises its independence.
Sporadic fighting has erupted frequently since a May 1994 ceasefire, most notably in 2016 in an eruption many saw as a brief war.
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