Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia, Azerbaijan ‘violated laws of war’

Amnesty says rival sides attacked civilian areas, as it called on both countries to investigate use of ‘inaccurate’ weapons.

Thousands of soldiers and at least 146 civilians were killed before the conflict was halted in November with a Russian-brokered peace deal [File: Artem Mikryukov/Reuters]

Azerbaijan and Armenia violated international humanitarian law in recent fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Amnesty International has said, as the rights group accused both sides of indiscriminately killing civilians.

In a report published on Thursday, it said there was “clear evidence” Armenian and Azeri troops had repeatedly attacked residential areas far from the front lines in last year’s six-week-long conflict, noting weapons including cluster munitions were used.

Because of the amount of harm they can cause, more than 100 countries have banned cluster munitions, although Armenia and Azerbaijan have not.

Azerbaijan says at least 94 civilians and more than 2,800 soldiers were killed in the clashes, while Armenia says at least 60 civilians and 2,400 soldiers lost their lives.

Amnesty put the civilian death toll at 146 overall, as it called on both countries to investigate the use of “notoriously inaccurate and indiscriminate weapons”.

Armenian forces used inaccurate ballistic missiles, unguided multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), and artillery, while Azerbaijan’s deployed unguided artillery and MLRS, the rights group said following on-ground investigations.

“By using these imprecise and deadly weapons in the vicinity of civilian areas, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces violated the laws of war and showed disregard for human life,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director.

“Civilians were killed, families were torn apart and countless homes were destroyed. Attacks were repeatedly carried out on civilian residential areas far from front lines, and where there often did not appear to be any military targets in the vicinity.”

Amnesty said civilian casualties would “almost certainly” have been higher had people remained in the affected areas.

In Stepanakert, a central city in Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenians either fled the fighting by travelling to Armenia or went underground into bunkers for shelter.

When Azerbaijanis were targeted in civilian areas, many left their towns for safer regions.

“The Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities must launch immediate, impartial investigations into their forces’ relentless and often reckless use of heavy explosive weapons in populated civilian areas,” Struthers said.

“As the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders begin to work out security arrangements it’s crucial that those responsible for these violations are swiftly held to account and that the victims get reparations.”

But as is often the case with the two rivals, both sides denied the other’s claims of indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas during the fighting, which was brought to an end in November with a Russian-brokered peace deal.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and self-appointed Armenian officials, backed by Armenia since a war in the mountainous region led to a ceasefire in 1994. That war claimed thousands of lives.

‘Our family was destroyed’

Amnesty’s researchers documented 18 attacks by Armenian and Azerbaijan forces which “unlawfully killed civilians” while visiting dozens of sites in the region.

Eight were launched by Armenian forces on towns and villages in Azerbaijan, killing 72 civilians, the rights group said.

In one attack on September 27, the day the clashes broke out, Armenian forces killed five members of the Gurbanov family and partially destroyed their house in Gashalti, near the Azerbaijani city of Naftalan, according to Amnesty’s report.

“Our family was destroyed. We had started to renovate the house before the war, now we can’t bear to be here any more,” Bakhtiar Gurbanov, who lost his parents, sister-in-law, nephew and niece, told Amnesty.

Relatives of Royal Sahnazarov, his wife Zuleyha Sahnazarova, and their daughter Medine Sahnazorava, who were killed when a rocket hit their home, mourn during their funeral in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan, October 17, 2020 [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Azeri troops were meanwhile accused of nine attacks on towns and villages in Nagorno-Karabakh, in addition to one in Armenia, killing 11 civilians.

In a separate incident on September 27, Amnesty said Azeri forces carried out 12 attacks in four minutes in Martuni, in Nagorno-Karabakh, mortally wounding an eight-year-old girl, Victoria Gevorgyan.

“Victoria was our little angel. She is gone … My little boy now still wakes up saying that there are planes in the sky bombing,” Anahit Gevorgyan, Victoria’s mother, told Amnesty.

After hostilities flared up again in September, the Azerbaijani military pushed into the region and surrounding areas with heavy artillery and drones.

Moscow-mediated the truce to stop the bloodshed; the ceasefire locked in territorial gains for Azerbaijan.

Under the agreement, Russia has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh for at least five years.

Ethnic Armenian rescuers carry the body of a victim following shelling in the city of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh on November 6, 2020 [File: Armenian Unified Infocentre/Handout via Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera