Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday his country’s forces had taken Shusha, the second-largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Armenian officials immediately denied the claim.
If accurate, this would be a major strategic victory over the region’s ethnic Armenian forces.
“With great pride and joy, I inform you that the town of Shusha has been liberated,” Aliyev said in a televised address to the nation, as Armenian officials reported that “heavy fighting” for the city continues.
Aliyev said November 8 would “go down in the history of the Azerbaijani people” as the day “we returned to Shusha”.
In the capital, Baku, Azeris gathered in large numbers to celebrate, waving flags and chanting slogans while drivers sounded their car horns.
The city and surrounding areas have seen fierce fighting in recent days as Azerbaijani forces seek to make further gains six weeks after new clashes broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The city, called Shushi by Armenians, is of cultural and strategic importance to both sides and is located 15km (9 miles) south of the enclave’s largest city, Stepanakert.
Leyla Abdullayeva, spokeswoman for Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera in Baku that Shusha is very important for Azerbaijan.
“So we have been waiting for this day, it’s a great day, and you can see that Azerbaijani people now are in the street in high spirits,” she said.
“And we are pretty much sure we will be going until the end, as the president said – we will be liberating all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan from occupation.”
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Yerevan, said Armenia was still insisting that the city had not fallen to Azeri forces. But videos on social media have shown people fleeing Shusha and the nearby city of Stepanakert in significant numbers.
“Armenians are being told the battle is still ongoing, that everything is not lost,” she said.
“But when you speak to people here and ask them, ‘What if it’s really lost?’ many people will tell you that’s really a disaster.”
Emboldened by Turkish and Israeli support, Azerbaijan has the upper hand in the bloodiest fighting in more than 25 years in the South Caucasus. In just over a month, it has retaken much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in a previous war over the territory in the 1990s.
The city could serve as a key staging post for an Azeri assault on the enclave’s largest city, Stepanakert. Both have come under heavy shelling in recent days. Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said allegations it had shelled civilian areas were “misinformation”.
Nagorno-Karabakh is within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since 1994. The latest outbreak of fighting started on September 27 and has left hundreds – if not thousands – dead.
Fighting has continued despite several attempts by Russia, France and the United States to help reach a lasting ceasefire. The three countries make up the “Minsk Group” of mediators that helped broker a truce between the ex-Soviet rivals in 1994, but have failed to find a lasting solution to the long-simmering conflict.
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