BAKU, Azerbaijan -- The fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continued Sunday over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijan accusing Armenia of targeting the country's cities that are far beyond the conflict zone.
Hikmet Hajiyev, aide to Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev, said Sunday that Armenia targeted large cities Ganja and Mingachevir with missile strikes. Ganja, home to several hundred thousand residents and the country's second-largest city, is located roughly 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) away from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, and so is Mingachevir.
The clashes erupted on Sept. 27 and have killed dozens, marking the biggest escalation in the decades-old conflict over the region, which lies within Azerbaijan but is controlled by local ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.
Hajiyev on Sunday tweeted a video depicting damaged buildings, and called it the result of “Armenia’s massive missile attacks against dense residential areas” in Ganja. It wasn’t immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the video.
Hajiyev said in another tweet on Sunday evening that Armenian forces also hit Mingachevir, which “hosts a water reservoir and key electricity plant,” with a missile strike.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry vehemently denied the claims. The ministry's spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian wrote on Facebook that “no fire was opened from Armenia in the direction of Azerbaijan” and called the accusations “desperate convulsions of the Azerbaijani side.”
Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, said on Facebook that he ordered “rocket attacks to neutralize military objects” in Ganja, but later told his forces to stop firing to avoid civilian casualties. His spokesman Vahram Poghosyan told Armenian media on Sunday evening there was no reason for Nagorno-Karabakh forces to target Mingachevir.
Azerbaijani officials denied that any military objects had been hit in Ganja, but said the attack caused damage to civilian infrastructure. One civilian has been killed, and 32 others sustained injuries, authorities said.
“Opening fire on the territory of Azerbaijan from the territory of Armenia is clearly provocative and expands the zone of hostilities,” Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov said in a statement Sunday.
According to Hajiyev, no serious damage was inflicted on the infrastructure in Mingachevir, but “civilians (have been) wounded.”
As the fighting resumed Sunday morning, Armenian officials accused Azerbaijan of carrying out strikes on Stepanakert and targeting the civilian population there. Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader Harutyunyan said that in response, his forces would target “military facilities permanently located in major cities of Azerbaijan.”
In a statement issued later on Sunday, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry rejected accusations of targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, tweeted Sunday that the country’s troops “liberated from occupation the city of Jabrayil and several surrounding villages.” Nagorno-Karabakh’s officials rejected the claim as untrue, saying the territory’s army “is controlling the situation in all directions.”
Nagorno-Karabakh officials have said nearly 200 servicemen on their side have died in the clashes so far. Eighteen civilians have been killed and more than 90 others wounded. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t given details on their military casualties, but said 24 civilians were killed and 111 others were wounded on their side.
Nagorno-Karabakh was a designated autonomous region within Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. It claimed independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, about three months before the Soviet Union’s collapse. A full-scale war that broke out in 1992 killed an estimated 30,000 people.
By the time the war ended in 1994, Armenian forces not only held Nagorno-Karabakh itself but substantial areas outside the territory’s formal borders, including Jabrayil, the town Azerbaijan claimed to have taken on Sunday.
This week’s fighting has prompted calls for a cease-fire from around the world. On Thursday, leaders of Russia, France and the United States — co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group, which was set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992 to resolve the conflict — issued a joint statement calling for an immediate cease-fire and “resuming substantive negotiations ... under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.”
Azerbaijani President Aliyev repeatedly said that Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh is the sole condition to end the fighting.
Armenian officials allege that Turkey is involved in the conflict and is sending fighters from Syria to the region. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said earlier this week that “a cease-fire can be established only if Turkey is removed from the South Caucasus.”
Spokesman of Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader Vahram Poghosyan said on Facebook Sunday evening that since Azeribaijan has involved “terrorist mercenaries" in the region, “this means that the current situation gives us a legitimate right to move our operations to the entire territory of Azerbaijan to clear it of terrorist groups.”
Ankara has denied sending arms or foreign fighters, while publicly siding with Azerbaijan in the dispute.
On Sunday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on Ganja, saying it was proof of Armenia’s disregard for the law. Ankara accused Armenia of attacking civilian residential areas, and claimed that Armenia could commit crimes against humanity.
“Armenia is the biggest barrier to peace and stability in the region,” the ministry said.
Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Aven Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul, contributed to this report.