After President Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday that his country ‘s forces had seized Shusha, the second largest city in the Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, Azeris celebrated on the streets of Baku, but Armenian officials denied the city had been captured.
Shusha, which is called Shushi by Armenians, is of cultural and strategic significance on both sides and is situated 15 km (nine miles) south of the largest city of the enclave, Stepanakert Azerbaijan .
In almost six weeks of violence in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave that is officially recognised as part of Azerbaijan but inhabited and dominated by ethnic Armenians, at least 1,000 people have died.
(This day) will become a wonderful day in the history of Azerbaijan, “said Aliyev, declaring that Shusha / Shushi had been captured by Baku ‘s troops.”
Azeris assembled in big numbers in Baku to celebrate, waving banners and shouting slogans, as their car horns were sounded by drivers.
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Aliyev ‘s assertion was rejected by officials from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and Armenia’s Ministry of Defense.
“For Azerbaijan, Shushi remains an unattainable pipe dream. The fortress city escapes the blows of the enemy, amid heavy damage,’ said the Nagorno-Karabakh Rescue Service.
The Ministry of Defense of Armenia said intense fighting for the strategic site continues, while the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army said it had repelled the Azeri side’s several attempts to advance on the area.
Emboldened by Turkish assistance, Azerbaijan has the upper hand in the bloodiest battle in more than 25 years in the South Caucasus. It has regained most of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in just over a month that it lost in the 1990s in a previous war over the region.
The town could serve as a main staging post for an Azeri attack on Stepanakert, the largest town in the enclave.
In recent days, both have come under heavy bombardment. The Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan said that claims that it had shelled residential areas were ‘misinformation.’
Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the town is also culturally important to both parties.
Before the previous war, the population was largely made up of Azeris, making it historically important for Azerbaijan. For Armenians, it is the site of the cathedral of Karabakh, de Waal said.