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`Why are they shelling civil­ian ar­eas?'

Azer­bai­jan, Ar­me­nia trade ac­cu­sa­tions

- COLIN FREE­MAN Military · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · Politics · Stepanakert · Armenia · Azerbaijan · Ganja · Ilham Aliyev · Shusha

STEPANAKER­T, AR­ME­NIA • Named in hon­our of those who helped Nagorno-Karabakh win in­de­pen­dence from Azer­bai­jan 30 years ago, Free­dom Fighter Street no longer has homes fit for he­roes.

A plaza of Soviet- style hous­ing in the break­away re­pub­lic's cap­i­tal, Stepanaker­t, the street's crum­bling flats have barely had a facelift since Com­mu­nist times.

Now, though, the four- storey blocks are in need of more than just a lick of paint af­ter a mis­sile crashed into them dur­ing shelling on Fri­day night.

The mis­sile — one of scores that have hit Stepanaker­t since war re­sumed again with Azer­bai­jan a week ago — killed an el­derly woman liv­ing on the third floor and wounded dozens more.

Yet the ca­su­alty count would prob­a­bly have been far higher had most of the res­i­dents not al­ready been shel­ter­ing in the flats' base­ments, which dou­ble as bomb bunkers.

The res­i­dents have had plenty of prac­tice in emer­gency drills: al­though the con­flict with Azer­bai­jan of­fi­cially “froze” af­ter a cease­fire in 1994, it has sim­mered ever since, leav­ing Stepanaker­t's 50,000 peo­ple in a state of con­stant readi­ness for war.

Nearly ev­ery build­ing with a cel­lar or base­ment dou­bles as a bomb shel­ter, and the city has a sys­tem of graded air raid warn­ings. A long, un­bro­ken siren means an en­emy plane has crossed the bor­der, three minutes' flight from Stepanaker­t. An in­ter­mit­tent noise can re­fer to drones, which fly more slowly.

But no warn­ing is avail­able at all for the mis­siles now land­ing in the city, many of which have hit civil­ian ar­eas.

“The mis­sile has half-de­stroyed this block,” said Nel­son Adamyan, 65, a re­tired elec­tri­cian, as he showed The Daily Tele­graph around the wreck­age of his bot­tom-floor flat on Satur­day. “Why are they shelling civil­ian ar­eas and killing old women? Real war­riors fight against each other in the fields, not in vil­lages full of civil­ians.”

As he spoke, two more loud ex­plo­sions rang out, forc­ing him to sprint again for cover in the block's base­ment, which is equipped with mat­tresses, ta­bles and a din­ing area.

“We don't even know if this place is safe, it's just a base­ment rather than a proper bunker,” Ta­mara Hayrapetya­n, 60, said. “But there would have been even more ca­su­al­ties if we hadn't been down here when the mis­sile hit.”

The shelling be­came even heav­ier Sun­day, with mis­siles crash­ing into sev­eral down­town streets. Azer­bai­jan also claimed that Ar­me­nian forces had fired rock­ets at its sec­ond city of Ganja, killing one civil­ian and wound­ing four.

Azer­bai­jan's Pres­i­dent Il­ham Aliyev de­manded on Sun­day that Ar­me­nia set a timetable for with­draw­ing from the en­clave of Nagorno- Karabakh and sur­round­ing Az­eri ter­ri­to­ries, and said Azer­bai­jan would not cease mil­i­tary ac­tion un­til that hap­pened.

In a tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion, Aliyev said Az­eri forces were ad­vanc­ing in a week­long of­fen­sive to re­take lands that they lost to eth­nic Ar­me­ni­ans in the 1990s.

Hun­dreds of peo­ple have been killed in the past week of fight­ing be­tween Azer­bai­jan and eth­nic Ar­me­nian forces, in­clud­ing more than 40 civil­ians.

But while the war shows ev­ery sign of es­ca­lat­ing, older res­i­dents like Hayrapetya­n take the bom­bard­ments in their stride. They en­dured far worse in the war for in­de­pen­dence in the early Nineties, as Nagorno-Karabakh's Ar­me­nian Chris­tians fought to se­cede from eth­ni­cally Tur­kic Azer­bai­jan.

Back then, Azer­bai­jani forces in the hill­top town of Shushi rained stock­piles of Soviet-era ord­nance down on to Stepanaker­t, at one point fir­ing 150 shells per day. So the res­i­dents of Free­dom Fighter Street feel no great need right now to sum­mon up much Blitz-style spirit.

In a base­ment bunker near the town cen­tre, where the Haru­tyun­yan fam­ily and their neigh­bours were stay­ing, a makeshift mini­bar had been set up with Heineken, Mar­tini and brandy, along with fresh wal­nuts, chew­ing gum and parac­eta­mol.

AT FIRST YOU WANT TO BE­LIEVE THAT IT'S OUR OWN FORCES JUST DO­ING TEST FIR­ING.

“We've been sleep­ing here ev­ery night for the last six days since the fight­ing started,” said Hayk Haru­tyun­yan, 18. “There's a dozen of us here in this one room, but we Ar­me­ni­ans are very close as fam­ily so we get on well to­gether.”

The mood was de­fi­antly up­beat, al­though his neigh­bour, Marine Manukyan, 57, wished for a time when the sirens and bunkers were no longer part of nor­mal life. She has al­ready lost one son to ill­ness five years ago, and has an­other now serv­ing on the front lines.

“This is the third gen­er­a­tion of our peo­ple who are see­ing war,” she said.

“When you wake up at seven in the morn­ing and hear ex­plo­sions, at first you want to be­lieve that it's our own forces just do­ing test fir­ing. But then you re­al­ize that you're just ly­ing to your­self, and that it's war once again.”

 ?? KARO SA­HAKYAN / AR­ME­NIAN GOV­ERN­MENT / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? Smoke bil­lows up on Sun­day from re­cent shelling dur­ing the on­go­ing fight­ing be­tween Ar­me­nia and Azer­bai­jan in Stepanaker­t, the main city of the dis­puted break­away Nagorno-Karabakh re­gion.
KARO SA­HAKYAN / AR­ME­NIAN GOV­ERN­MENT / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Smoke bil­lows up on Sun­day from re­cent shelling dur­ing the on­go­ing fight­ing be­tween Ar­me­nia and Azer­bai­jan in Stepanaker­t, the main city of the dis­puted break­away Nagorno-Karabakh re­gion.

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