Azerbaijani forces move closer to key Nagorno-Karabakh town

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The Azerbaijani army on Thursday closed a key city in Nagorno-Karabakh after more than a month of intense fighting, as senior diplomats from Azerbaijan and Armenia prepared for further talks in an attempt to end their long conflict in separatist territory.Nagorno-Karabakh separatist leader Arayik Harutyunyan said Azerbaijani troops had advanced to about three miles from the strategically located town of Shushi. He urged residents to mobilize all their resources to repel the attack.

“Whoever controls Shushi controls Nagorno-Karabakh,” Harutyunyan said in a video speech from the city’s cathedral, which was badly damaged by Azerbaijani bombardments this month. “We must realize this and participate in the defense of Shushi. We must reverse the situation. ”

Shushi is located about six kilometers south of the Nagorno-Karabakh regional capital, Stepanakert.

Nagorno-Karabakh is located in Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of the war in 1994.

The latest fighting began on September 27 and involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones, in the biggest escalation of hostilities in the breakaway region in a quarter of a century since the end of the war. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been killed in just over a month.

Separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday accused Azerbaijani forces of bombarding Stepanakert, Shushi and Martakert with multiple Smerch rocket systems, a devastating Soviet-designed weapon intended to ravage large areas with explosives and slot weapons -ammunition. Martakert was also attacked by Azerbaijani planes, officials said.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry denied using planes and accused Armenian forces of bombing the Terter, Goranboy and Barda regions of Azerbaijan. A civilian was killed in the Goranboy region, according to Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to the Azerbaijani president.

The ministry also reported that it shot down two Armenian Su-25 fighter jets, a claim Armenian officials dismissed as “disinformation.”

According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,166 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far. Azerbaijani authorities have not disclosed their military casualties, but say the fighting has killed at least 90 civilians and injured 392.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that, according to reports from Moscow, the fighting toll was around 5,000, a number significantly higher than officially announced.

Hostilities have raged for a fifth week despite international calls for peace and three attempts to establish a ceasefire. The latest truce negotiated by the United States frayed immediately after it took effect on Monday, as did two previous ceasefires brokered by Russia. The warring parties have repeatedly accused each other of violations.

Russia, the United States and France co-chaired the so-called Minsk Group created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate the conflict, but they failed to make any progress .

The co-chairs of the Minsk group were due to meet the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia on Thursday in Geneva, but negotiations were postponed until Friday and the prospects for a breakthrough looked bleak.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan said the date change was “linked to the development of the situation and logistical issues,” adding that the negotiation of a lasting ceasefire and verifiable is a priority for Armenia.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly criticized the Minsk group for failing to achieve results in three decades and insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to take back its territory by force since the failure of the international mediation.

Speaking at an investor conference in Moscow on Thursday, Putin said negotiating a settlement for the decades-long conflict is extremely difficult.

“It’s a tight knot and there are no easy solutions,” Putin said. “Each side has its own truth.”

Russia, which has a military base in Armenia and a security agreement to protect its ally, has engaged in a delicate diplomatic act while also trying to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan and avoid a confrontation with Turkey.

Before the latest escalation of hostilities, Russia proposed a peace plan that would see Azerbaijan regain control of several of its areas outside Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces captured during the war that ended in 1994. In return, Nagorno-Karabakh would benefit from security guarantees and a crippling blockade of Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan would be lifted.

Armenia resisted the plan.

Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose homes were damaged by the bombing, also appear to have little confidence in international peace efforts.

“Neither France nor Russia is doing anything. We are left alone, ”said Vovik Zakharian, a resident of Shushi, a town that has suffered repeated bombing.

Zakharian, 72, inspected his apartment on Thursday after it was damaged in the morning strikes.

“We will fight until the end,” he said. “We have to do our best.”

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