The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, said his country’s forces had captured Shusha, the second largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, although Armenian officials denied the capture.
Shusha, which the Armenians call Shushi, is nine miles (15km) south of the land’s largest city, Stepanakert, and is of cultural and strategic importance to both sides.
At least 1,000 people died in nearly six weeks of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain area recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan but was populated by and Armenians.
“(This day) will become a great day in the history of Azerbaijan,” Aliyev said, announcing that Baku’s troops had captured the city.
In Baku, Azeris gathered in large numbers to celebrate, waving flags and chanting slogans, while the drivers honk their horns.
Officials from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the Armenian Defense Ministry rejected Aliyev’s claims.
“Shushi is still an unattainable fantasy dream for Azerbaijan. Despite the heavy destruction, the fortress city was still able to withstand enemy attacks, ”said Nagorno-Karabakh rescue agency.
The Armenian Defense Ministry said fierce fighting to take a strategic position continued, while the defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh said it had repelled many Azeri efforts to enter the town.
Spurred by Turkish support, Azerbaijan dominated the bloodiest fighting for over 25 years in the South Caucasus. In just over a month, it recaptured much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost in a previous territorial war in the 1990s.
The city could serve as a headquarters for the Azeri raid on Stepanakert. Both have been heavily bombarded in recent days. The Azerbaijan Defense Ministry said the allegations that it shelled civilian areas were “false information”.
Thomas de Waal, an analyst at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the town has cultural implications for both sides. Its population was mainly made up of Azeris before the previous conflict, making it of historical significance for Azerbaijan. For the Armenians, this is where Karabakh’s church is located, de Waal said.