After Azerbaijan claimed to have captured Shusha, a strategic city in Nagorno-Karabakh, the streets of Baku erupted into celebrations on Sunday.
But, as in most instances of the conflict over the region, Armenia immediately refuted its rival’s claim.
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Armenia reported heavy fighting around a strategic city in Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, a day after Azerbaijan announced what would be a significant breakthrough after six weeks of bloodshed.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced his country’s forces had taken Shusha, which sits on a mountaintop overlooking Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert, on Sunday.
“I am fortunate to have fulfilled a father’s will. We liberated Shusha! This is a great victory! Today may the soul of National Leader and our martyrs be praised! I felicitate you, Azerbaijan!” he tweeted.
Armenia denied the region’s ethnic Armenian forces had lost control of the city it calls Shushi, but said fighting around it was heavy.
“The combat in the vicinity of Shushi goes on. The Nagorno-Karabakh army units are successfully carrying out their mission, depriving the enemy of the initiative,” said Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan.
Diplomats appeared to ramp up efforts over the weekend as fighting intensified near Shusha, with Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking on Saturday to Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Emmanuel Macron of France.
Turkey is a key ally of Azerbaijan and Erdogan congratulated Baku after its claim of retaking Shusha, calling it “a sign that the liberation of the rest of the occupied territories is near”.
Turkish involvement would be key to any agreement to halt the fighting and there were reports on Sunday of a plan to agree on a ceasefire and deploy Russian and Turkish peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has said it would only intervene if fighting reached Armenian soil after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally asked Putin to begin “urgent” consultations on security assistance.
Casualties and failed ceasefires
Azerbaijan has since September 27 retaken much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in a war over the breakaway territory which killed an estimated 30,000 in the 1990s.
Several thousand people are feared killed in the latest flare-up of the conflict over territory which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Three ceasefires have failed in the past six weeks and Azerbaijan’s superior weaponry and battlefield gains have reduced its incentive to seek a lasting peace deal.
Shusha, or Shushi, is bordered by sheer cliffs and could serve as a staging post for an Azeri assault on Stepanakert, military and political analysts said.
Its population was predominantly made up of Azeris before the 1991-94 war, and it is culturally significant to both sides.
Russia, which held vast influence in the South Caucasus during Soviet times, has a defence pact with Armenia but also has good relations with Azerbaijan, a gas and oil-producing state whose pipelines have not been affected by the fighting.
Military analysts say direct Russian military involvement in the conflict is unlikely unless Armenia itself is deliberately attacked, and that Turkey will probably not step up its involvement if Azeri advances continue.
In the latest fighting, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry denied Armenian reports that its forces were shelling Stepanakert, and accused Armenian forces of firing at Azeri positions along the two former Soviet republics’ border. Armenia denied this.
Azerbaijan said positions in its Tovuz and Gadabay regions were under fire, and Armenia reported fighting in various parts of the combat zone.