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Nagorno-Karabakh: A rapid descent

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By George Fairhurst

As news emerges that Azerbaijan's second-largest city, Ganja, has been shelled by Armenian forces, and heavy clashes continue over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Action on Armed Violence examines the conflict in the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh is no stranger to the sorrows of war. Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the mountainous territory in 1988-94, eventually declaring a ceasefire. But the current fighting is the worst seen since that ceasefire was set.

There certainly has been a sharp uptick in fighting. Preceding the recent flare-up, figures from AOAV's database showed that -- between 2012 and July 2020 -- there were just 137 casualties from explosive violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan combined, as reported in English language media. In these eight years, 16 civilians were killed and a further 39 injured.

More recently, though, there has been a major shift. Between July 2020 and -- September 27th, Azeri forces attacked Armenia's military with intense shelling designed to seize and secure territory. This was largely a battle between forces. In this three month period, 19 civilians were killed and 11 injured. Overwhelmingly, though, the victims were armed actors. Some 139 armed and security personnel casualties were killed or injured by explosive weapons during this time.

Since Sunday, September 27th, however, a second phase of the conflict has begun. Tactics have radically changed. Instead of a strategy using tanks, armoured personnel, artillery and drones to cause military damage, both sides are now primarily carrying out indiscriminate attacks on urban targets. A rise in civilian casualties has been inevitable.

In the last five days alone, English language media has reported a drop in army and security personnel casualties to almost zero, but a steep uptick in the frequency and magnitude of civilian casualties: with 24 injured and 4 killed by explosive violence.

It should be noted that these figures are based on confirmed English language media reports and the actual figures regarding both civilian and armed/security personnel casualties are likely to be much higher. For instance, the BBC claims that 220 people have been confirmed killed since 27th September and states that there are fears both military and civilian casualties are much higher. AOAV's data shows just how much there has been a shift towards a form of war where civilian harm is inevitable.

The context

The current period of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan that began in July and erupted on 27th September is arguably the most serious since the ceasefire in 1994 which ended the conflict in the 1980s and 90s. That conflict left 30,000 dead and created around a million refugees.

The conflict today stems from a dispute over the right to territory. Nagorno-Karabakh and neighbouring territories have officially remained a part of Azerbaijan, but are effectively controlled by Armenian separatists backed by the Armenian government. The difference between the historic and the ongoing conflict, however, is that both sides now have access to advanced technology and are choosing to use both artillery and drones to target urban civilian populations, and civilian infrastructure.

The recent surge in violence first began along the Azerbaijan-Armenian border, concentrating on Talysh, Murovdag and Mardakert in the North, and Fizuli and Jabrayil in the South. Since Sunday 27th, Azeris claim that Armenian tactics changed dramatically with long-range missiles being used focused on crowded cities.

On October 2nd, Azeri artillery fell on Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's capital. In response, Armenian artillery shelled Ganja, Azerbaijan's second largest city inhabiting 330,000 residents. Both sides have condemned the other, stating they are deliberately targeting civilians. Civilian casualties have been reported in high numbers, in both Stepanakert and Ganja.

In addition to populated areas, Al Jazeera has reported that Armenian forces targeted the Mingecevir Hydroelectric Plant, causing two civilians to be injured. If the hydroelectric plant, which holds the nation's biggest water reservoir and supplies electricity to the entire country, was destroyed it would flood some 14 Azerbaijani cities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has condemned the reports of "indiscriminate shelling and other alleged unlawful attacks using explosive weaponry in cities, towns and other populated areas".

Despite direct calls for ceasefire by international bodies and powers including Russia, the US, France, and Germany, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has made it clear that he will not negotiate until the entire occupied lands have been fully liberated.

Yerevan rejected these demands and has stated that it now considers military facilities in Azerbaijan's big cites legitimate targets. In a televised address to the nation, Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan said: "This is the end. We showed them who we are. We are chasing them like dogs".

In addition, Turkey has openly stated its support for the actions of Azerbaijan and its campaign to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh. French President Emanuel Macron -- representing France's position in the OSCE Minsk Group -- condemned these comments, stating that it removed any inhibitions that Aliyev might have had regarding his offensive, curbing efforts for peace in the region.

The Guardian has also reported that Azerbaijan has permitted entry to 1,000 Syrian fighters working for Turkish security firms, set to be deployed in Karabakh. In addition, Azerbaijan has accused Iran of supplying Armenia with arms and military equipment.

International response

As each day passes, it appears that the blind exchange of explosive violence is bringing the region closer to all-out war. What is clear is that the use of heavy explosive weapons in the cities of Ganja and Stepanakert, and other towns and populated areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is killing and injuring civilians and destroying vital infrastructure.

AOAV and other organisations that form the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) calls on all parties to the conflict to stop the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns, cities and other populated areas due to the high risk of harm to civilians, and amid rising civilian casualties.

Every year tens of thousands of civilians are killed and injured by bombing and shelling in urban and other populated areas using weapons designed for use in open battlefields. Many more civilians experience life-changing injuries, and suffer from destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and vital services. The use of explosive weapons is also one of the main catalysts of forced displacement, as civilians flee for safety. Unexploded ordnance left behind after a conflict has ended further impedes the safe return of civilians.

The bombing and shelling in these towns and cities highlights the needs for new international standards against the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities. Heavy explosive weapons are those with wide area effects, and include weapons that produce a large blast area or spread fragments widely, weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as multiple-launch rocket systems, and inaccurate weapons where the effects of the weapon extend beyond the target. When used in cities and towns where there are concentrations of civilians, the risk of harm to civilians is great

Over 100 countries have recognised the harm caused to civilians from the use of explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas. States have started discussions on the development of new international standards to adopt stronger rules against attacks using heavy explosive weapons in cities, towns and other populated areas, under the leadership of Ireland.

INEW calls upon states to include in the elaboration of a political declaration, a commitment to avoid use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Post Scriptum\ In 2005, Iain Overton -- AOAV's Executive Director -- travelled to Nagorno Karabakh to report on the stalemate there for the BBC. His film can be viewed below: