Heavy shelling and civilian casualties dash hopes for Karabakh ceasefire
Hopes for a Russian-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan were further dashed on Sunday. Both sides accused the other of firing heavily in civilian areas and of escalating violent clashes for two weeks.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that shelling of the country's second largest city, Ganja, by Armenian forces overnight killed seven people and injured 33, including children, less than 24 hours after fighting ceased to take effect.
Rescuers in red helmets dug through piles of rubble with their bare hands looking for signs of survivors, an AFP journalist in the city reported.
They retrieved an almost naked body and carefully put it in a white bag to be taken away in an ambulance while several horrified residents watched and cried.
A witness said they were awakened by a huge explosion that leveled an entire square block of one- and two-story houses and destroyed nine apartments in the early hours of the morning.
"Everything I've worked all my life has been destroyed," said 68-year-old Zagit Aliyev.
The agreement to suspend hostilities to exchange prisoners and the bodies of people killed after two weeks of fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region was approved by Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Russia-brokered marathon talks in Moscow.
- 'An absolute lie' -
The ceasefire officially went into effect on Saturday lunchtime, but both sides almost immediately accused each other of the violations.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Defense in the breakaway region insisted that the Armenian armed forces respect the humanitarian ceasefire and accused Azerbaijan of firing on civilian areas.
Allegations that Armenian forces were responsible for shelling ganja are "an absolute lie," he added.
The leader of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Arayik Harutyunyan, described the situation on Sunday as "calmer" but warned that the ceasefire was precarious.
An AFP journalist in Stepanakert, the administrative capital, who has been subject to heavy bombing since the fighting broke out and is covered in deep craters and unexploded ordnance, said he heard loud explosions throughout the night.
Vahram Poghosyan, a spokesman for the Karabakh leader, said the overnight shelling of Stepanakert was "a disregard for the agreements reached in Moscow" and called on the international community to recognize the province's independence as a way to end the fighting.
Fighting broke out late last month following a long-simmering disagreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
The disputed area is an ethnic-Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that is home to around 150,000 people. Azerbaijan's control broke out in a war in the 1990s that killed around 30,000 people.
The separatist government is strongly supported by Armenia, which, like Azerbaijan, gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
- A "temporary" truce -
The recent fights have been the toughest since the war of the 1990s. More than 450 people have been reported dead and thousands have fled their homes, fearing that the fighting could lead to devastating conflict.
The return of fighting has raised fears of a full-blown war affecting Turkey, which has strong support for Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a military treaty with Armenia.
France, Russia and the US - known as the "Minsk Group" - have searched for a permanent solution to the Karabakh conflict for decades, but have failed to stop sporadic outbreaks of fighting, and Baku, with the assistance of Turkey, appears to remain preoccupied to be military intervention.
A senior Azerbaijani official said Saturday that the ceasefire was "temporary" and Baku had "no intention of retracing its efforts to regain control of Karabakh."
jbr / wdb
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