Explosions rang out in the distance as Kamo Hayrapetyan knelt in prayer at the Church of the Redeemer in the historic town of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Dressed in camouflage and white sneakers, the 60-year-old Armenian lit a candle and poked it under the partially collapsed roof of the church, which was hit by an Azerbaijani missile a month ago.
Hayrapetyan, whose own house was destroyed in the Shusha bombardment, said: “They bombed us every day, it has become a habit for us.
“We will protect our land, we will hold out to the end. And we will not abandon Shushi,” he said, using the Armenian name for the town.
An ethnic Armenian region of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh separated from Baku̵7;s control in a war in the early 1990s that killed around 30,000 people.
Decades of deadlock, failed negotiations and sporadic clashes followed, until the most severe fighting since the 1994 ceasefire broke out on September 27.
Nearly six weeks later, clashes grew closer and closer to Shusha – a sign of how far Azerbaijani forces had come in their campaign to retake their region.
Arayik Harutyunyan’s separatist leader Karabakh raised the alarm late last month, warning that Azerbaijani forces were only five kilometers (three miles) away from Shusha.
“Whoever controls Shushi will control Artsakh,” he said in a video shot in front of the church, using the Armenian name for the town and Nagorno-Karabakh.
– Hill top fortress –
The hilltop town, where the cliffs make it a natural fortress, are of great strategic importance.
It is high above the region’s capital Stepanakert and on the main road connecting the city to neighboring Armenia territory, which backs the separatists.
Officials in Karabakh and Armenia have reported multiple attacks south of Shusha in recent days.
There were clashes in Karintak, known as Dashalty in Azerbaijan, a town at the foot of the Shusha cliffs, and around the town of Lachin to the south.
Importantly, the Azerbaijani forces also reached the route leading south from Stepanakert, through Shusha and Lachin, to the Armenian border.
This was the main route through the area and capturing it would cut off the separatist’s most important supply route.
It was closed for the first time on Wednesday, with Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Shushan Stepanyan saying this was due to “the search for subversive groups”.
It is not clear how far Azerbaijani forces had reached the area around Shusha and how far – though Armenian officials reported frequent clashes and destruction of armored vehicles and tanks.
What is clear is that advancing to this area represents a great benefit to Azerbaijan since the start of fighting.
Azerbaijan reclaimed territories on the southern flank of Karabakh – with experts estimating Baku recaptured 15 to 20 percent of the territory it lost in Nagorno-Karabakh and seven neighboring regions in the 1990s.
Much of this land is plain, and the war will be much tougher in narrow passes and mountains, where separatist forces have had for many years to build defenses.
Armenian officials say any interests of Azerbaijan come at a huge price and claim to have destroyed thousands of enemies.
– Coffin factory –
The separatist forces have admitted more than 1,000 fighters were killed, while Azerbaijan has not released any data on the military casualties.
Meanwhile, both sides have accused the other side of regularly targeting residential areas with artillery and missile strikes, with more than 130 civilians confirmed dead on both sides.
In Shusha, signs of these attacks are everywhere, from bomb craters in gardens to apartment buildings with blown up windows.
Most of Karabakh’s civilians fled the fighting to reach Armenia and Stepanakert for days like a ghost town, with the sounds of shelling and air raids sirens ringing in the empty streets.
One of the few activity centers is a furniture factory that has suspended its usual business for coffins, a gloomy reminder of the increasing number of deaths.
The workshop was lined with dozens of newly made caskets, their glossy brown wood glistening in the light.
David Hayrapetyan, 41, who works in the factory, said: “Unfortunately, we have to make a coffin right now because it’s so important and in need,” said David Hayrapetyan, 41, who works from home. machine, for when a colleague is fixing a yellow cross on the lid of the coffin. .
bur-acl-mm / jbr / wdb