Civilians killed in Ganja as Nagorno-Karabakh conflict escalates

Armenia rejects claims it was behind the attack that prompted Azerbaijan president to vow ‘revenge’.

17 Oct 2020

At least 13 civilians – including two children – have been killed and more than 40 wounded in an attack on Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganja that Baku said was carried out by Armenia.

A missile attack levelled a row of homes on Saturday, killing and badly injuring people in their sleep in a sharp escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Armenia denied it was behind the attack and in turn accused Azerbaijan of continued shelling on Stepanakert, the main city of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The attack on Ganja marks a sharp escalation in the conflict, with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev promising “revenge”.

According to Hikmat Hajiyev, an assistant to the Azeri president, “more than 20 houses were destroyed” in the attack.

Mushfiq Jafarov, a member of parliament from Ganja, told Al Jazeera that two children are among those killed.

“There are only civilians living here,” said Jafarov.

The attack on Ganja, which has a population of more than 300,000 people, came only six days after a missile struck another residential part of the city, killing 10 civilians and leaving many on edge.

“Fortunately my family and I were not at home,” Sevil Aliyeva, a resident from Ganja, told Al Jazeera. “My house is destroyed.”

Rescue workers are digging through the rubble to find survivors.

One man was buried under the debris for 30 minutes before he was rescued. He said he was very tired and wanted this conflict to end soon.

At around the same time in the city of Mingecevir, an hour’s drive north of Ganja, AFP news agency reported the impact of a huge blast that shook buildings.

Mingecevir is protected by a missile defence system because it is home to a strategic dam, and it was not immediately clear if the missile was destroyed in the air or had made an impact.

The defence ministry said Mingecevir had come “under fire”, but provided no other immediate details.

An Azerbaijani official said a second missile hit a separate, industrial district of Ganja at around the same time.

Al Jazeera correspondent Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Baku, said Azerbaijan was trying to run the diplomacy channels.

“We just heard from the assistant to the president that he himself is delegating a group of foreign diplomats and military attaches to head to Ganja to see the explosion site,” she said.

Azeri officials said the Scud missile was fired from the Armenian territory, which the Armenians have consistently denied.

“Based on Armenia’s defence ministry spokesperson’s claims, Ganja is a military target because of [the presence of] some military units, battalions and brigades and some defence industry factories,” Koseoglu said.

“Since October 4, Ganja has been targeted by rockets and ballistic missiles. These land in residential areas and the city centre, the most crowded dense residential areas.”

Hours after the shelling, the Azeri president said the country’s army would retaliate against Armenia and “take revenge on the battlefield”.

Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, condemned the attack and called it a “war crime”.

“Armenia still commits war crimes and massacres civilians,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a tweet. “Silence against this atrocity equals sharing responsibility of these murders.”

Armenian defence ministry denied the Azeri claim on shelling cities in Azerbaijan and accused Baku of continuing to shell populated areas inside Nagorno-Karabakh, including Stepanakert, the region’s biggest city.

Three civilians were wounded as a result of Azeri fire in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian foreign ministry said.

“We woke up at 4am due to an awful blow, it was not just a strike, it was something more powerful … we are scared, but we got used to it,” Lika Zakaryan, a 26-year-old resident of Stepanakert, told Reuters news agency.

“Sometimes we felt as if they were hitting directly on us.”

Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith said Armenia is now under intense pressure, having lost control of some territory it has controlled since the 1994 ceasefire to Azerbaijan.

“The foreign ministry of Armenia has released a tweet and it says that consistent attempts by Azerbaijan to extend the geography of the conflict, plus irreversibly undermining regional security should be condemned in the strongest terms,” Smith said, speaking from the Armenian town of Vorotan.

“Armenia is accusing Azerbaijan of taking this territory militarily rather than the negotiations over which both sides agreed to take part in.”

The fighting which began on September 27 is the worst in the region since Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces went to war in the 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway Azeri region predominantly populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

More than 700 people, including nearly 80 civilians, have been killed in the conflict so far.