Azerbaijan has said at least 12 people have been killed after the shooting down of a number of homes in the city of Ganja, with 40 more injured in a sharp escalation of the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Azeri prosecutor said two shells hit apartment buildings in the country’s second largest city. There has been no official response from Armenia yet.
The attack on Saturday, in which another strike in another part of Ganja and a third reached the nearby strategic city of Mingecevir, came hours after Azerbaijani forces scaled down the capital of the ethical Armenian separatist region, Stepanakert.
The escalation of violence further undermines international efforts to calm a resurgence of fighting between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis before drawing regional powers into Russia and Turkey.
Journalists in Ganja saw rows of houses turned into rubble at the shelling, and a rescue team removed black bags containing body parts from the site. The strike shattered the walls and tore down the roofs of buildings in the surrounding streets.
People ran outside in shock and tears, stumbling through muddy alleys in their slippers, some wearing bathrobes and pajamas.
A witness said he saw rescuers pull a small child, two women and four men out of the dirt in the minutes immediately following the strike.
“We slept. The children were watching television, ”said Rubaba Zhafarova, 65, in front of his ruined house. “All the houses around here have been destroyed. Many people are under the rubble. Some are dead, others are wounded. ”
The attack came just six days after a missile hit another residential part of the city with more than 300,000 people, killing 10 civilians.
Hikmat Hajiyev, an assistant to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, tweeted that according to “original information, more than 20 houses were destroyed” on Saturday.
Rescuers regularly called for silence so they could detect sounds from survivors as the hours went by, pulling passports, keys, bracelets and clothing out of the trash. They called in sniffer dogs and watered the suffocating columns of dust down with hoses from a fire truck.
“My wife was there, my wife was there,” cried a man comfortingly as he was walked towards an ambulance by a medical doctor.
Around the same time in the town of Mingecevir, an hour’s drive north of Ganja, journalists heard the impact of a huge explosion that shook buildings.
Mingecevir is protected by a missile defense system because it is home to a strategic dam, and it was not immediately clear whether the missile was destroyed in the air or had an impact.
The Ministry of Defense said that Mingecevir had come “under fire”, but did not provide any other immediate details.
An Azerbaijani official said another missile hit a separate industrial district in Ganja at the same time.
No immediate details of this second attack were known.
The decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted again on September 27 under highly controversial circumstances and has so far killed more than 700 people, including nearly 80 civilians.
The mountainous western region of Azerbaijan has remained under separatist ethnic Armenian control since a ceasefire in 1994 ended a brutal war that killed 30,000.
But Armenia, which supports Nagorno-Karabakh but does not recognize its independence, has admitted that Azerbaijani forces have made significant gains along the front in the past week.
The current escalation is the deadliest and longest since the six-year conflict.
The shelling of Stepanakert and the strikes against Ganja followed a joint call by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to “end the bloodshed as soon as possible”.