Azerbaijan launches ‘anti-terrorist’ attack in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan has launched attacks against the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, with bombing raids hitting the regional capital of Stepanakert, in an explosive move that threatens to reopen a bloody 2020 war.

Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, said its “anti-terrorist” campaign on the blockaded region, which local Armenians call Artsakh, was “limited” and necessary to restore order, and that it was committed to peace. However, the previous offensive, in which Azerbaijan retook land from a local Armenian population, was fiercely fought amid widespread accusations of war crimes.

Related: ‘They want us to die in the streets’: inside the Nagorno-Karabakh blockade

Video from Stepanakert appeared to show bomb raid warnings blaring and the audible sounds of artillery fire. Other video from the region seemed to show Azerbaijan using drones to strike Armenian anti-air defence positions. Artillery fire, possibly from a Grad multiple rocket launcher system, could also be heard on the outskirts of the city of Askeran.

“As part of the measures, positions on the frontline and in-depth, long-term firing points of the formations of Armenia’s armed forces, as well as combat assets and military facilities are incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” the Azerbaijani ministry of defence said in a statement.

The ministry claimed weapons were not being used against civilian positions but the strikes were clearly being carried out in close proximity to major cities and population centres.

“We have heard lots of explosions in Stepanakert, it was both artillery shelling and UAV strikes, drone strikes,” said Artak Beglaryan, a former adviser to the self-declared government of Artsakh, in an interview from Stepanakert with the Guardian. He estimated he had heard dozens or hundreds of explosions on Tuesday.

“They targeted both military objects and civilian objects,” he said. “They attacked along the entire contact line, not only near Stepanakert but in all the regions.”

Azerbaijan said it had launched the attacks to force Armenian-backed fighters from the region and demanded that the local ethnic Armenian government “must dissolve itself”.

Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a Facebook post that five people had been killed and 80 wounded as a result of the military operations.

Analysts said it appears that Baku is seeking to drain resolve from the de-facto Artsakh republic by blockading the local population and increasing pressure on hundreds of thousands of locals to leave the territories.

“It’s potentially about an ultimatum [from Azerbaijan]: unless you dissolve, there will be more of this and basically [Baku] eating away at the space that is controlled by the de-facto authorities,” said Laurence Broers, the Caucasus programme director at London-based peacebuilding organisation Conciliation Resources. “The de facto authorities really don’t have any allies or anyone to fall back on. [Armenian president] Nikol Pashinyan has made it very clear that Armenia is not going to war over Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Hundreds were filmed protesting in front of the Armenian parliament on Tuesday calling for a military response. But the government signalled that was unlikely. Pashinyan said: “Attempts to drag Armenia into large-scale military escalation are unacceptable. We should not allow these forces, people, including in Armenia, to jeopardise Armenian statehood.”

The previous war, which ended in a defeat for the de-facto Artsakh state backed by the government of Armenia, lasted 44 days. Azerbaijani forces seized the historically significant city of Shusha, which Armenians call Shushi.

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Russia played a key role in negotiating the 2020 ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but the increased pressure in Nagorno-Karabakh could also force Russia to abandon its peacekeeping contingent there before its mandate is renewed in 2025.

“It’s a paradigm of coercive pressure,” said Broers, adding that it raised costs on the continued existence of a separate Artsakh republic.

The EU has said it is deeply concerned about the uptick in violence but it is unclear how much pressure the body is ready to put on Azerbaijan.

In a statement on Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, condemned the military escalation in Karabakh. “We call for the immediate cessation of hostilities and for Azerbaijan to stop the current military activities … There is an urgent need to return to dialogue between Baku and Karabakh Armenians. This military escalation should not be used as a pretext to force the exodus of the local population.”

Tuesday’s attacks come amid a growing crisis as a result of an effective blockade of the Lachin corridor by the Azerbaijani government and activists, leading to pronounced shortages of foodstuffs, medicine and other goods in the region.

Large parts of Stepanakert, the capital of the Armenian enclave, have been left without water or electricity.

The Armenian ministry of defence on Tuesday said the “situation on the borders of the Republic of #Armenia is relatively stable”.

Earlier on Tuesday, six Azerbaijani citizens were reportedly killed in the disputed region in two landmine explosions. The group included four soldiers and two civilians in a territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that was captured by Azerbaijan during the 2020 war.

Nagorno-Karabakh and some surrounding territories have been under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 end of a separatist war, but Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself in 2020.

Locals fear that the resumption of hostilities by Azerbaijan could lead to a new campaign.

“We don’t have enough military strength in order to stop their offensive,” said Beglaryan. “US military intervention should happen in order to stop the genocide here. Otherwise, hundreds of thousands of people could die.”

Reuters contributed to this report