A missile strike levelled a row of homes in Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganja Saturday, killing and badly injuring people in their sleep in a sharp escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The early hours attack, which saw a second missile strike another part of Ganja and a third reach the nearby strategic city of Mingecevir, came hours after Azerbaijani forces shelled the ethic Armenian separatist region’s capital Stepanakert.
There was no early official information about the toll from any of the attacks but AFP reporters in Ganja saw a rescue team remove black bags containing body parts from the scene.
The spike in violence further undermines international efforts to calm a resurgence of fighting between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis before it draws in regional powers Russia and Turkey.
An AFP team in Ganja saw rows of houses turned to rubble by the strike, which shattered the walls and ripped the roofs off buildings in the surrounding streets.
People ran outside in shock and tears, stumbling through muddy alleys in their slippers, some wearing bathroom robes and pajamas.
One witness said he saw rescuers pull a small child, two women and four men from the debris in the minutes immediately after the strike.
“We were sleeping. The kids were watching TV,” Rubaba Zhafarova, 65, said in front of her destroyed house.
“All the houses around here are destroyed. Many people are under the rubble. Some are dead, some are wounded.”
The attack came only six days after a missile struck another residential part of the city of more than 300,000 people, killing 10 civilians.
Hikmat Hajiyev, an assistant to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, tweeted that according to “initial information, more than 20 houses were destroyed” on Saturday.
– Passports, keys, bracelets –
Rescuers periodically called for silence so they could detect sounds of survivors as the hours passed, pulling out passports, keys, bracelets and items of clothing from the debris.
They called in sniffer dogs and watered down the suffocating columns of dust with hoses from a fire truck.
“One woman was missing her feet. Someone else was missing an arm at the elbow,” said Elmir Shirinzaday, 26.
AFP later saw three more people carried away on stretchers, although it was not clear if they were dead or alive.
“My wife was there, my wife was there,” one man cried inconsolably while being walked toward an ambulance by a paramedic.
At around the same time in the city of Mingecevir, an hour’s drive north of Ganja, AFP heard the impact of a huge blast that shook buildings.
Mingecevir is protected by a missile defence system because it is home to a strategic dam, and it was not immediately clear if the missile was destroyed in the air or had made impact.
The defence ministry said Mingecevir had come “under fire”, but provided no other immediate details.
An Azerbaijani official said that a second missile hit a separate, industrial district of Ganja at around the same time.
No immediate details about that second attack were known.
The decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict re-erupted on September 27 in hotly disputed 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 1994 ceasefire ended a brutal war that killed 30,000.
But Armenia, which backs Nagorno-Karabakh but does not recognised its independence, has admitted that Azerbaijani forces have made important gains along the front in the past week.
AFP on Friday was taken by the Azerbaijani military to one settlement re-captured in the southern section of the conflict zone near the Iranian border.
Officials said they last controlled the settlement of Jabrayil, which includes strategic hights over looking a fertile valley, during the post-Soviet war.
The current escalation is the deadliest and longest since that six-year conflict.
The shelling of Stepanakert and the strikes on Ganja followed a joint call from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to “end the bloodshed as soon as possible.”
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