Azerbaijan says its forces are closing in on second strategic city in Nagorno-Karabakh
Armenian prime minister denies losing control of Shusha
Yervan/Baku — Azerbaijan's armed forces were edging closer to Nagorno-Karabakh's seat of power on Monday after proclaiming victory in the battle for the enclave's second-largest city.
After six weeks of heavy fighting, Azerbaijan said on Sunday it had captured Shusha, which is known by Armenians as Shushi and sits on a mountain top overlooking Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's biggest city.
Nagorno-Karabakh's leaders had on Sunday denied losing control of the city and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan continued to do so on Monday, saying that fighting for the city was still raging.
But an Azeri defence ministry video posted online showed Azerbaijan's national flag flying over deserted streets in what it said was Shusha, and Vahram Poghosyan, a spokesperson for Nagorno-Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan, wrote on Facebook: “Shushi city is not in our control.”
“We should keep it together as the enemy is near Stepanakert,” he wrote.
Shushi lies about 15km south of Stepanakert and is important to ethnic Armenian hopes of keeping control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway territory which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Emboldened by Turkish support, Azerbaijan says it has since September 27 retaken much of the land in and about Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in a 1991-1994 war that killed about 30,000 people and forced many more from their homes.
Armenia has denied the extent of Azerbaijan's territorial gains.
Several thousand people are feared killed in the flare-up of the conflict. Three ceasefires have failed in the past six weeks and Azerbaijan's superior weaponry and battlefield gains have reduced its incentive to seek a lasting peace deal.
Turkey has strongly supported Azerbaijan in the conflict and Russia has a defence pact with Armenia.
Neither has been drawn directly into the conflict but, in an incident that could fuel tensions, Russia's defence ministry said on Monday a Russian M-24 military helicopter had been shot down over Armenia and two crew members killed.
It said the Russian military base in Armenia was investigating what happened and who brought it down.
Military analysts say direct Russian military involvement in the conflict is unlikely unless Armenia itself is deliberately attacked, and that Turkey will probably not step up its involvement if Azeri advances continue.
Russia, which held vast influence in the South Caucasus during Soviet times, also has good relations with Azerbaijan, a gas and oil-producing state whose pipelines have not been affected by the fighting.
With its armed forces outgunned by Azerbaijan, Armenia has avoided direct military intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh. The state of its economy, hit by the coronavirus pandemic, could also be a constraining factor.
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