YEREVAN – The intense shelling in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh is taking its toll on the civilian population as fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces showed no signs of abating Wednesday, with one resident hunkered down in a shelter exclaiming “How can one stand it? How long will it last?”
Clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the region since Sept. 27 have killed hundreds in the worst escalation of hostilities since 1994 when a truce ended a war that raged for several years. Nagorno-Karabakh lies inside Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia for more than a quarter-century.
Stepanakert, the territory’s capital, has been under intense artillery barrage in recent days. Flashes of explosions could be seen from the city center on Tuesday night.
Local residents have been gathering in shelters to escape the violence, distraught over continued strikes on the city.
“Bombing ... buildings and houses are destroyed. We are so afraid of it. How can one stand it? How long will it last?” Sida, one fearful resident who stayed in a shelter on Tuesday night, told The Associated Press without providing her full name.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Ovannisian said Wednesday that Stepanakert was being targeted once again by Azerbaijan along with other settlements. Nagorno-Karabakh officials said that civilian infrastructure and a few residential buildings in Stepanakert have been hit with missiles and drones.
Azerbaijan has rejected claims of targeting civilian infrastructure in Stepanakert. Hikmet Hajiyev, an Azerbaijani presidential aide, said in an interview earlier this week that Azerbaijani forces only targeted military objects in and around Stepanakert, acknowledging, however, that “some collateral damage” was possible.
The fighting in the region — involving heavy artillery, warplanes and drones — has continued despite numerous international calls for a cease-fire. Both sides have traded accusations of expanding the hostilities beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and of targeting civilians.
The Nagorno-Karabakh's military said Wednesday that 320 of its soldiers have been killed in fighting since Sept. 27, while Azerbaijan hasn't publicized its losses. Scores of civilians on both sides have also died.
The EU expressed concern Wednesday about the fighting.
“We have seen extremely worrying reports of attacks on populated areas which is taking a deadly toll on civilians. We strongly urge the sides to fully observe their international obligations to protect civilian populations,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told members of the European Parliament.
He voiced concern about Azerbaijan’s determination to continue the fight until Armenia’s withdrawal from the region and a strong expression of support for Azerbaijan from Turkey.
Borrell said that he had discussed the conflict with the foreign ministers of both countries, and with those of Russia and Turkey, the main regional players closest to the conflict. Turkey has publicly backed Azerbaijan in the conflict and said it was ready to provide military assistance, should Azerbaijan request it.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hailed Turkish weapons in an interview with CNN-Turk broadcast Wednesday, noting that “Turkish drones have created a huge difference."
“The Turkish defense industry has developed at such a speed that, I hope in the future, with the Turkish arms our military equipment will reach a higher level," he added.
While praising his main ally Turkey, Aliyev also had warm words for Russia, which has a military base in Armenia but has sought to cultivate warm ties with both rivals.
“We have long historic relations with Russia,” Aliyev said. “Today, Russia has developed relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is an important factor”
Russia, the United States and France are co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, set up to mediate the conflict.
Azerbaijan's foreign minister is set to attend a meeting of the Minsk group in Geneva on Thursday to present Baku's position on the conflict.
Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Lorne Cook in Brussels, contributed to this report.