Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have exchanged heavy rocket and artillery fire, with each side accusing the other of targeting civilian areas as the fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh intensified.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said on Sunday one civilian was killed and four wounded in an Armenian rocket attack on its second city of Ganja, and Baku threatened to retaliate by destroying military targets inside Armenia.
Armenia denied it had directed fire “of any kind” towards Azerbaijan. The leader of Nagorno-Karabakh said his forces had targeted a military airbase in Ganja but later stopped firing in order to avoid civilian casualties.
In statements posted on its website earlier, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Ganja and several other civilian areas were being attacked using rockets and shelling.
“Azerbaijan will destroy military targets directly inside Armenia from which shelling of its population centres is taking place,” presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said, adding that there were civilian casualties in Beylagan, which borders Nagorno-Karabakh.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Ganja, said: “People here are telling us that approximately an hour after a rocket landed, a second hit another residential area a few blocks away, wounding two people.”
Earlier, Armenian officials said Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city of Stepanakert, which has been under shelling since Friday, was struck again.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Stepanakert, said the city has been under intense bombardment since early on Sunday morning.
“Air-raid sirens wailed across this city as a barrage of rockets and mortars rained down,” he said. “There has been considerable damage on the buildings in the city centre,” added Smith, calling it “a very difficult day for the people of Stepanakert”.
“People were unable to go out. They are hiding in the bomb shelters. Civilians are on the receiving end of this bombardment.”
Azerbaijani authorities said they had taken “retaliatory measures” after rocket fire from Stepanakert. Separately, the Azerbaijani defence ministry said Armenian armed forces were firing rockets at the towns of Terter and Horadiz in the Fizuli region.
Late on Sunday, Azeri presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said Armenian forces had launched a missile attack against the industrial city of Mingachevir.
“Mingachevir hosts water reservoir and key electricity plant. Barbaric expression of desperation,” Hajiyev said on Twitter.
Defence officials in Nagorno-Karabakh denied targeting the city.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said on Twitter his forces had captured the town of Jabrail and several villages in what, if confirmed, would be a significant advance on the southern edge of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan dismissed the claim as “yet another fabrication”. Independent verification was not possible.
In a televised address to the nation later on Sunday, Aliyev demanded Armenia set a timetable for withdrawing from Nagorno-Karabakh and said Azerbaijan would not cease military action until that happened.
“Azerbaijan has one condition, and that is the liberation of its territories,” he said. “Nagorno-Karabakh is the territory of Azerbaijan. We must return and we shall return.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is controlled by ethnic Armenians backed by Armenia and has been the subject of several United Nations resolutions calling for an end to the occupation of Azeri lands.
The escalating conflict threatens to drag in other regional powers as Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey, while Armenia has a defence pact with Russia. Turkey’s foreign ministry said: “The attacks of Armenia targeting the civilians in Ganja … are a new manifestation of Armenia’s unlawful attitude. We condemn these attacks.”
Casualties from the past week’s fighting have run into the hundreds, although precise figures are impossible to obtain, while each side has accused the other of targeting civilians.
Nagorno-Karabakh reported deaths and casualties among civilians in Stepanakert and Shushi as a result of Azeri shelling.
Azerbaijan has previously accused Armenia of firing into its territory from Vardenis, and Yerevan has denied it. Armenia says two civilians were killed in and near Vardenis last week by cross-border fire from Azerbaijan.
It also says Azerbaijan has used the airport in Ganja – a city of some 335,000 people that is located about 100km (60 miles) north of Stepanakert and 80km (50 miles) from the Armenian city of Vardenis – as a base for its fighter jets to carry out bombing raids on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan said his forces would target military targets in Azeri cities. “Permanent military units located in the large cities of Azerbaijan from now on become the targets of the defence army,” he said.
The clashes are the worst since the 1990s, when some 30,000 people were killed. They have raised international concern about stability in the South Caucasus, where pipelines carry Azeri oil and gas to world markets.