YEREVAN—Battles of varying intensity continue to rage along the entire length of the Line of Contact (LoC) as Azerbaijan’s attempted invasion of Artsakh enters its second day. Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan announced on Monday that an Armenian counter-offensive launched around midnight the previous day successfully recaptured the majority of front-line positions ceded to the Azeris on the first day of fighting. “We are fighting the combined forces of Azerbaijan and Turkey,” said the president during the press briefing.
While Sunday’s offensive launched by Azerbaijan hit the entirety of the front line, the most serious engagements were concentrated in the Fizuli area along the Iranian border, and Talysh, to the extreme north—echoing the battles which took place there during the 2016 April War.
On Sunday afternoon, Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev announced that Azeri forces had “liberated” the settlements of Qaraxanbəyli, Qərvənd, Yuxarı Abdurrəhmanlı, Kənd horadiz, Böyük Mərcanlı and Nüzgar in the Fizuli region. However, those tiny hamlets, abandoned since the 1994 cease-fire, mostly lie within the no-man’s-land between the two forces. Artsakh authorities denied the loss. They instead reported repulsing an Azerbaijani armored thrust in the direction of nearby Hardut, before successfully restoring the LoC to its status quo ante-bellum.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense also claimed to have captured the Mrav height in Artsakh’s northern Shahumyan province, threatening the Vardenis-Martakert highway, which was subsequently closed to civilian traffic as a precaution. However, Artsakh Security Council Secretary Samvel Babayan announced on Twitter that the highway remained “fully under our control.” Mount Mrav—the highest peak in Artsakh—was reportedly recaptured by Armenian forces on Monday afternoon.
— Samvel Babayan (@SecBabayan) September 27, 2020
For most of Monday, the town of Martakert and surrounding villages have come under heavy artillery fire which one military spokesperson described as being “of unprecedented intensity.” Azerbaijan, for its part, has claimed that the town of Tartar across the LoC, has come under Armenian counter-battery fire, hitting civilian areas as well as an unmarked military ambulance. Several attempted incursions into Armenian lines have been repulsed throughout the day, according to Artsakh officials. The Armenian Prime Minister’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, who is currently in Artsakh, visited wounded soldiers in the hospital, as well as families sheltering in underground bunkers.
Artsakh’s Ministry of Defense has confirmed the deaths of 42 servicemen during Sunday night’s counter-offensive, and subsequent combat actions along the front on Monday—which included a second Azerbaijani armored offensive—for a total of 84, in addition to at least 200 injured. President Harutyunyan estimates Azerbaijani losses in tanks and armor to be over 50 in the last 48 hours, while the Defense Ministry claims to have shot down at least five helicopters, 27 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and killed or wounded several hundred Azerbaijani personnel. The Azerbaijani side has denied this, countering that its armed forces had killed up to a thousand Armenians and taken important swaths of territory. Azerbaijan has yet to release official casualty figures.
On social media, rumors spread that Azerbaijani Major-General Mayis Barkhudarov was captured in the offensive, but Artsakh MOD officials denied that claim. Barkhudarov later resurfaced in an interview with Azerbaijani state-owned media. However, allegations that Turkey has been providing Azerbaijan with active military and material support have been increasingly substantiated. Reuters published an interview with two Turkish-trained Syrian Islamist militants who confimed that they were being transferred to Azerbaijan. “I didn’t want to go, but I don’t have any money,” one Syrian fighter was quoted by Reuters as saying. He also divulged that they were being paid $1,500 a month by the Turkish government. Additionally, UAV footage published by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense allegedly showing a drone strike on an Armenian vehicle had an interface which defense analysts identified as belonging to the Turkish-manufactured TB2 Bayraktar UCAV, which Azerbaijan does not have in its inventory. Another claim repeated by both the Artsakh and the Armenian presidents that Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter-bombers were deployed against civilian targets in Artsakh has yet to be independently verified.
In the United States, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden released a statement on the developing situation in Artsakh calling on both sides to reestablish the cease-fire regime. He also took the opportunity to criticize his opponent President Donald Trump for not taking a more proactive, diplomatic role in the region. “The Trump administration also needs to step up its diplomatic efforts, together with fellow OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs France and Russia, to seek a peaceful resolution and to support confidence-building measures,” his statement read. For his part, President Trump told a reporter during Sunday evening’s press briefing that “We have a lot of good relationships in that area. We’ll see if we can stop it.” Careful not to lay blame on either of the parties, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called for “maximum restraint.” Russia has a close economic and military relationship with Armenia, but also serves as Azerbaijan’s largest supplier of heavy weaponry.
Back in Yerevan, the mobilization announced by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was met with enthusiasm and resolve. Throughout the day, fighting-age men showed up in droves at local military precincts for roll call. The military, however, has so far only enacted a selective call to active service with others being asked to stand by. All throughout the capital, large crowds gathered to see off coach buses filled with young men as they left for the front. Others assembled at collection points to donate food, clothes and supplies for the civilians of Artsakh. Lines also formed at hospitals where blood drives were being conducted.
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One woman told the Armenian Weekly that one of her two sons had a medical deferment and was turned away from the call up. “My eldest son, who did get mobilization orders, told him ‘Don’t worry. I’ll fight for the two of us.’” Across the city, TV sets and radios are tuned into the news, while denizens are glued to their smartphones and discussing updates on the situation in Artsakh. Despite the tense mood, cautious optimism is widespread. “How are you so sure we’re going to win?” a woman was overheard asking in a cafe near one of the blood drive locations. “Because we have no other alternative,” came the response.