Azerbaijan on Tuesday announced a new offensive in the ethnic-Armenian controlled breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a major escalation which could turn the simmering South Caucasus dispute into all-out war.
In a statement issued by Azerbaijan’s defense ministry on Tuesday, officials said they were launching “local anti-terrorist activities” to “suppress large-scale provocations” in the territory. Baku also declared that it will “evacuate” the local Armenian population.
“As part of the measures, positions on the front line and in-depth, long-term firing points of the formations of Armenia’s armed forces, as well as combat assets and military facilities are incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” it said.
The dramatic escalation comes after months of fruitless negotiations and amid growing speculation Azerbaijan could seek to use force to bring a decades-long frozen conflict to an end once and for all.
Air raid sirens have been activated in Stepanakert, the de facto capital of the unrecognized state, local media reported.
Speaking to POLITICO, Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, said that the “goal is to neutralize military infrastructure” and added that the local Armenian population had been sent SMS messages warning them of the “counter-terrorism actions.”
“They have been asked to stay apart from legitimate military targets,” Hajiyev said.
In a subsequent statement, the Azerbaijani defense ministry said it had established “humanitarian corridors and reception points” in order to “ensure the evacuation of the population from the dangerous area.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. A Russia-brokered cease-fire agreement has since collapsed, with Azerbaijani forces taking control of the Lachin Corridor, the only road in or out. Since then, aid organizations say they have been unable to deliver supplies of food and fuel, amid growing fears of “ethnic cleansing.”
In a message shared through intermediaries due to intermittent internet connection in the region, Sergey Ghazaryan, the unrecognized government’s foreign minister, said Azerbaijan had sent in troops “in order to implement its policy of genocide, is moving towards the physical destruction of the civilian population and the destruction of civilian objects.”
In an interview last week, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Azerbaijan had built up large numbers of troops on both the countries’ shared border, and along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh. “It is not possible to exclude the scenario of escalation,” he said.
Photos and videos purportedly posted by mobilized Azerbaijani soldiers showed large convoys heading toward the region, many marked with an inverted A-symbol.
The offensive comes after months of high-stakes negotiations brokered by the EU, U.S. and Russia in an effort to avoid a repeat of the 2020 war and end the worsening famine.
In July, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said that Brussels was “deeply concerned about the serious humanitarian situation” and called on all sides to commit to “negotiated outcomes and a future built on common interests and mutual trust.”
In a call with Aliyev earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Azerbaijan to refrain from military escalations and emphasized the “need for a dialogue,” while also pressing the country to reopen the Lachin Corridor.
This story is being updated.