Massive bombing, civilian casualties shatter hopes for Karabakh ceasefire

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Stepanakert (Azerbaïdjan) (AFP)

Hopes for a Russian-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan were further dashed on Sunday, with both sides accusing the other of heavy bombing in civilian areas and a two-week escalation of violent clashes.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry says night-time bombardment by Armenian forces on the country’s second largest city, Ganja, left seven dead and 33 injured, including children, less than 24 hours after shutdown fighting supposed to take effect.

Rescuers wearing red helmets dug through piles of debris with their bare hands looking for traces of survivors, an AFP reporter from the city reported.

They recovered an almost naked body and carefully put it in a white bag to be taken in an ambulance while several horrified residents watched and cried.

A witness said they were awakened by a huge explosion that razed an entire square block of one and two story houses in the early hours of the morning, leaving nine apartments destroyed.

“Everything I have worked for all my life has been destroyed,” said Zagit Aliyev, 68.

The agreement to suspend hostilities in order to exchange prisoners and the bodies of those killed after two weeks of fighting in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region was approved by the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers during marathon negotiations organized by Russia in Moscow.

– ‘An absolute lie’ –

The truce officially went into effect at noon on Saturday, but the two sides almost immediately accused each other of violations.

On Sunday, the defense ministry of the breakaway region insisted that the Armenian forces respected the humanitarian ceasefire and in turn accused Azerbaijan of bombing areas with civilian populations.

Claims that Armenian forces were responsible for the bombing of Ganja were “an absolute lie,” he added.

The leader of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Arayik Harutyunyan, called the situation “calmer” on Sunday, but warned the truce was precarious.

An AFP journalist in the administrative capital of Stepanakert, which has been subjected to heavy bombardments since the fighting began and is riddled with deep craters and unexploded ordnance, reported hearing loud explosions throughout the war. night.

Vahram Poghosyan, a spokesman for the leader of Karabakh, said the night bombing on Stepanakert was “a lack of respect for the agreements reached in Moscow”, and called on the international community to recognize the independence of the province as a means to end the fighting.

New fighting broke out late last month, following a long disagreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh.

The disputed territory is an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, home to around 150,000 people, which broke control of Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.

Its separatist government is strongly supported by Armenia, which, like Azerbaijan, gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

– A “temporary” ceasefire –

The most recent fight was the hardest since the war of the 1990s, with more than 450 dead, thousands forced to flee their homes and fearing the fighting could escalate into devastating conflict.

The return of the fighting has fueled fears of a full-fledged war involving Turkey, which strongly supports Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military treaty with Armenia.

France, Russia and the United States – known as the “Minsk Group” – have for decades sought a lasting solution to the Karabakh conflict, but have failed to stop the sporadic outbreaks of fighting, and Baku, with Turkish backing, appears determined to continue its efforts. military intervention.

A senior Azerbaijani official said on Saturday that the truce was only to be “temporary”, and said Baku had “no intention of going back” in its efforts to regain control of Karabakh.

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