Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday his country’s forces had taken Shusha, the second-largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Armenian officials immediately denied the claim.
If accurate, this would be a major strategic victory over the region’s ethnic Armenian forces.
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“With great pride and joy, I inform you that the town of Shusha has been liberated,” Aliyev said in a televised address to the nation, as Armenian officials reported that “heavy fighting” for the city continues.
Aliyev said November 8 would “go down in the history of the Azerbaijani people” as the day “we returned to Shusha”.
In the capital, Baku, Azeris gathered in large numbers to celebrate, waving flags and chanting slogans while drivers sounded their car horns.
The city and surrounding areas have seen fierce fighting in recent days as Azerbaijani forces seek to make further gains six weeks after new clashes broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The city, called Shushi by Armenians, is of cultural and strategic importance to both sides and is located 15km (9 miles) south of the enclave’s largest city, Stepanakert.
Leyla Abdullayeva, spokeswoman for Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera in Baku that Shusha is very important for Azerbaijan.
“So we have been waiting for this day, it’s a great day, and you can see that Azerbaijani people now are in the street in high spirits,” she said.
“And we are pretty much sure we will be going until the end, as the president said – we will be liberating all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan from occupation.”
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Yerevan, said Armenia was still insisting that the city had not fallen to Azeri forces. But videos on social media have shown people fleeing Shusha and the nearby city of Stepanakert in significant numbers.
“Armenians are being told the battle is still ongoing, that everything is not lost,” she said.
“But when you speak to people here and ask them, ‘What if it’s really lost?’ many people will tell you that’s really a disaster.”
‘Unattainable pipe dream’
At least 1,000 people have died in nearly six weeks of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Shortly before Aliyev’s announcement, the Armenian government said on Twitter that “heavy and decisive fighting continues for Shushi” and called the taking of the town “an unattainable pipe dream for Azerbaijan”.
“Over the night, the most ferocious combat has unfolded in the vicinity of Shushi,” Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said. “Despite heavy destruction, the fortress city withstands the blows of the adversary.”
Armenian defence ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the battle for the city was continuing, adding, “Wait and believe in our army.”
Emboldened by Turkish support, Azerbaijan has the upper hand in the bloodiest fighting in more than 25 years in the South Caucasus. In just over a month, it has retaken much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in a previous war over the territory in the 1990s.
The city could serve as a key staging post for an Azeri assault on the enclave’s largest city, Stepanakert. Both have come under heavy shelling in recent days. Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said allegations it had shelled civilian areas were “misinformation”.
Nagorno-Karabakh is within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since 1994. The latest outbreak of fighting started on September 27 and has left hundreds – if not thousands – dead.
Aliyev promised to continue the fighting until Armenia withdraws from the territory.
“Our liberation march continues. We will go to the end, until the complete liberation of the occupied territories,” Aliyev said.
Fighting has continued despite several attempts by Russia, France and the United States to help reach a lasting ceasefire. The three countries make up the “Minsk Group” of mediators that helped broker a truce between the ex-Soviet rivals in 1994, but have failed to find a lasting solution to the long-simmering conflict.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have each accused the other of targeting civilian areas during the fighting and the United Nations last week decried indiscriminate attacks that could amount to “war crimes”.
The fighting has raised fears that both Russia, which has a military alliance with Armenia, and Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey could be further drawn into the conflict.
Abdullayeva said that Azerbaijan is ready to sit at the negotiating table and start a political settlement of the conflict, if Armenia commits to withdrawing its forces from disputed territories and allows Azeris displaced by previous fighting to return.
“For this we need to eliminate the fact of occupation and to ensure the return of all the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to their homelands,” she said.
Al Jazeera’s Abdel-Hamid said it is clear to many in Armenia that Azerbaijan has the upper hand on the battlefield.
“Certainly this fighting is having a toll, and there is a feeling of loss here,” she said.
“There is a realisation here in Armenia that things need to change – either politically or militarily. And military, at the moment, it is very difficult for that to happen.”