Death toll soars as Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict escalates: ‘This is a fight against jihadists’

Ever since tensions flared up again late last month, everything from rockets to missiles to munitions continues to crack in and around Nagorno-Karabakh — the hotly fought-after land parcel bordering Christian-dominant Armenia and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.

And there is little reprieve in sight, with both countries accusing each other of having triggered the renewed clashes.

“It is a full-scale war with all its elements. Heavy fighting on the frontline along with a humanitarian crisis in almost the whole territory,” Varuzhan Geghamyan, a 29-year-old researcher in Stepanakert, told Fox News. “Twice, I have seen cluster bombs not far away from our car while driving. There are many unexploded bombs on the streets of Stepanakert and Shushi.”

He described the eruption as “unprecedented,” charting it as a “fight against the jihadists” — and one that has propelled the populous underground.

While internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan, the region is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians — sometimes referred to as Armenian “separatists.” Yet caught in the crossfire are the civilians not only inside the enclave’s capital of Stepanakert but also those living in the surrounding mountains and villages as potent, long-range weapons stem from both sides.

A destroyed house damaged by shelling during fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Terter, Azerbaijan, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Armenia and Azerbaijan say heavy fighting is continuing in their conflict over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan's president said late Saturday his troops had taken a village. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)

A destroyed house damaged by shelling during fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Terter, Azerbaijan, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Armenia and Azerbaijan say heavy fighting is continuing in their conflict over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s president said late Saturday his troops had taken a village. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)

The once small but imperial capital, defined by homes carved in ancient stones and wide streets stretching out into teal horizons, is now something of a smoldering heap, with chunks of neighborhoods reduced to ruin and buildings left to blister and burn.

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“Chaotic shelling of Stepanakert by Azerbaijani army continuous for already 11 days. So almost whole civilian life is fully conducted in bomb shelters, which resulted in a new humanitarian crisis,” Geghamyan lamented.

Some say that it is not only Stepanakert that is being strangled, but that their small villages and desolate farmlands have become fatally wounded places too – and even when they drive to the very edges of their towns, they’re forced to wrangle war from the sky.

“There has been so much damage to private property – we are trying to record all losses, but the volume is just too high. It’s already in the tens of millions in damages,” said Nagorno Karabakh, a 32-year-old human rights defender. “We are seeing the use of banned weaponry – like very large cluster bombs – and many human losses because of this. People are scared, they have gone underground, or they are fleeing to IDP camps or to become refugees in Armenia. Even far from frontlines, people are dying.”

Karabakh, himself having lost his eyesight after stepping on a landmine as a child, called — somewhat darkly — for the world not to “turn a blind eye” to the ignited conflict.

Nonetheless, displacement camps are fast filling with weeping women and small children, still craning their necks and staring into the dark sky – waiting for something to fall.

A car destroyed by shelling in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces accused each other of attacks on their territory Tuesday, as fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued for a third straight day following the reigniting of a decades-old conflict. (Areg Balayan/PAN Photo via AP)

A car destroyed by shelling in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces accused each other of attacks on their territory Tuesday, as fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued for a third straight day following the reigniting of a decades-old conflict. (Areg Balayan/PAN Photo via AP)

Similarly, on the Azerbaijani side, there are no shortages of faces resembling maps of grief — the fear and anxiety of the past two weeks evident as the diplomatic process unravels, with little in the way of a concrete solution to stop the bombs raining down.

“Since the very first day, Armenians bombarded our homes, schools, kindergartens and more than 30 peaceful people were killed as a result, and hundreds are wounded,” Natig Musayev, a Terter district resident, told Fox News. “But despite artillery shelling by the enemy and casualties among civilians, there is no panic among us, these are our lands, and we will not leave under no circumstances.”

He said the past 12 days were spent glued to radios and television screens delineating news from the battlefield, underscoring that more than 30 civilians — including several school children — have lost lives and limbs as a consequence of relentless shelling, cautioning the casualty count will only rise in coming days.

Yet Musayev insisted he and his neighbors remain clam in the face of the bombardment.

“I am not afraid at all. I am proud because we have a strong army and a strong spirit. We did not want war because nobody wants to see his or her close ones to be killed or become disabled,” he continued. “But we have to liberate our occupied territories.”

Authorities said this week that rockets had struck the residential region of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, with photos circulated on social media showing houses razed and smoke billowing through the sky. Baku has accused Armenia of firing rockets not only from Nagorno-Karabakh but also from its national territory, a charge that Yerevan has adamantly denied.

The Nagorno-Karabakh preserve has been a source for skirmishes since the 1994 ceasefire between the two former Soviet nations. The terrain technically rests in Azerbaijan, as per international law, but it is generally defined as being controlled and populated by the ethnic Armenians — with Armenia’s support to run its affairs independently from Baku, the Azerbaijan capital since the Soviet Union fell almost three decades ago.

The prized parcel — rich in minerals, mulberry groves and alpine meadows — is a point of patriotic pride for both countries. The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., was established in 1992 in a bid to find an amicable solution. While a ceasefire was declared two years later, the dispute languishes.

Displaced from the ongoing clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, families seek aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Displaced from the ongoing clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, families seek aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). (ICRC)

But of particular interest to the international community are the weapons being used from both sides – supplied by different international players and providing a concerning window into the future of aerial warfare.

Despite disavowals from both Baku and Ankara, many in the international community have pointed fingers at Turkey for entering the fighting fray on behalf of Azerbaijan and against its long-running enemy Armenia, thus adding increased lethality and potency to the clashes.

Satellite imagery published this week highlights at least two F-16 Viper fighter jets — most likely from Ankara’s arsenal — spotted at Ganja International Airport in Azerbaijan earlier this month. The Armenian Ministry of Defense claimed last week that one of its SU-25 military jets was shot down by a Turkish F-16 that departed from Azerbaijan; however, both Azerbaijan and Turkey have refuted that declaration.

Moscow is also believed to be playing something of a pivotal part behind the scenes. While Russia has relations with both parties, militarily and diplomatically, it is closer to Armenia and has a base inside the country.

But according to Seth Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, the ongoing cross-border battle is being characterized by a “unique type of fighting” — that is, Azerbaijan’s use of armed drones against Armenia’s tanks, artillery and military vehicles.

“While armed drones have been used for decades by the U.S. in the global war on terror, Baku’s decision to deploy hundreds of new types of drones raises the curtain on the future of war,” he noted.

These “new types” are known as “suicide drones” or “loitering munitions,” and they function by “swarming” enemy positions. For years, Frantzman noted, Azerbaijan has been acquiring them from Israel in addition to the SkyStriker from Elbit Systems, made in the Jewish state.

Baku is also believed to have collected an array of other drones — such as the Turkish TB2 Bayraktars, a scaled-down rendition of the U.S. Reaper, which has been supplying fighters in Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

Zara Amatuni, a regional representative for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), emphasized that the deluge in attacks involving heavy explosive weaponry — and crashing on civilian turf — is coming from both sides.

“We are seeing a lot of civilian injuries, including children and the use of heavy explosive weaponry,” she said Thursday. “People are moving into shelters and basements, which do not have proper sanitary conditions, and we are observing problems with the onset of winter. Hospitals and schools have been damaged by artillery fire, and the threat of COVID is straining the healthcare system even more.”

Amatuni also pointed out that there has been little to no lull in the mayhem, with “the intensity of the dangerous and volatile” situation holding strong. 

The ICRC is calling for the immediate protection of civilian areas, obligations that must be adhered to under international law.

A man speaks with his child, wounded during shelling, in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued on Monday morning after erupting the day before, with both sides blaming each other for resuming the attacks. (Areg Balayan/PAN Photo via AP)

A man speaks with his child, wounded during shelling, in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued on Monday morning after erupting the day before, with both sides blaming each other for resuming the attacks. (Areg Balayan/PAN Photo via AP)

And while the likes of the United States, along with France and Russia, have been calling for a quell in the fighting in joint statements, such requests have fallen on deaf ears. The Pentagon and U.S. State Department have granted a range of aid packages to both sides of the conflict; however, Democrats in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have pegged a large portion of the blame on Azerbaijan and NATO ally Turkey for provoking and inflaming the fighting.

In a letter sent last week to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, signed by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and 10 other Senate Democrats, a fervent request was made to suspend security assistance to Baku and demand NATO ally Turkey step out of the combat theater.

Canada has also announced it is freezing arms exports to Turkey, and Israel has hinted it might also pause commercial sales pending further investigation.

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As it stands, more than 250 people have been killed in the recent rash of violence, and countless numbers have been wounded. Fears of a broader ripple effect hover, especially if Armenia hits oil and natural gas pipelines in Azerbaijan, which will send a raw ripple effect through the Caucus as the winter frost comes to bare.

However, the likes of Musayev paint a very different picture of who is to fault for the fighting.

“Nagorno Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. The international community must respect the right of these people to return to their homes and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” he asserted. “We want nothing other than our rights to be restored.” 

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