Artsakh Defense Minister injured as Armenian forces repel Azeri attacks

YEREVAN—Artsakh Minister of Defense (MoD) Lieutenant General Jalal Harutyunyan is said to be injured after fighting in a trench near Martakert on Tuesday. Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan announced that his wounds were not life threatening and appointed Major General (now promoted to Lieutenant General) Mikael Arzumanyan as the new commander of the Artsakh Defense Army. General Arzumanyan is a veteran of the first Karabakh War, where he was promoted in quick succession to battalion commander by the time he was 24. He is considered to be among the most competent military strategists in the Artsakh Army. 

On Tuesday, while the situation on the front line remained relatively stable, if tense, artillery fire was heard throughout Artsakh, as Azerbaijan shelled peaceful settlements near Martuni, Martakert and in the Askeran region all morning. Azerbaijan also insisted that Armenia had fired rockets into the Azeri town of Barda, allegedly killing scores of civilians. Authorities in Yerevan have vehemently denied this claim. However, the Armenian-populated villages of Sarushen and Khacmach were hit by Azerbaijani fire, causing significant damage and wounding three women, according to the office of the Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman. 

An Azerbaijani attack on the Armenian province of Syunik was also repelled with at least two drones being shot down and recovered by Armenian border guards. A limited counterattack apparently succeeded in pushing the Azeris back out of some positions adjacent to Armenia-proper that had been captured in previous days. This setback for Azerbaijan triggered an angry response from the Azeri Ministry of Defense, which accused Armenia of “violating” not only the humanitarian ceasefire that Azerbaijan’s actions had already neutered on the previous day, but also of violating “the sovereignty of Azerbaijani territory.”

The successful counterattack was confirmed by Armenian MoD representative Artsrun Hovhannisyan, who added that similar northward advances attempting to cut off the Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor had also been pushed back. Hovhannisyan stated that Azerbaijani commandos made several unsuccessful attempts to capture scores of villages in the hills around Hadrut, leaving armoured vehicles behind in some cases. “Our adversary, joined by fighters from foreign terrorist groups, have been fighting uphill battles on our mountains, which has proven extremely difficult for them,” Hovhannisyan said during his daily briefing on Tuesday, as Artsakh defense officials released the names of an additional 35 fallen soldiers, bringing the military death toll to 1009. 

Hovhannisyan pointed out that the pace of the fighting has shifted since the intense strikes of the first days. According to him, the Azerbaijani attack has run out of steam, and previously rapid developments on the battlefield have evolved into smaller, but more intense battles. “Our forces are now engaging the Azeris in multilayered battles in the forests and mountains,” Hovhannisyan said. “The adversary had lost its technological edge on the battlefield due to adaptive Armenian strategies designed to thin out their ranks and neutralize them.” For security reasons, he remained mum on some of the details of these recent military gains.

News of the ceasefire breakdown seemingly fell on deaf ears in Washington. President Donald Trump, who had earlier promised to solve the Karabakh issue, initially dismissed the claim, insisting that the ceasefire was still holding. In a tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he called Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and urged them both to return to the negotiation table to no avail. When pressed on the issue, Trump apparently washed his hands of the whole affair. “It’s disappointing to see that,” he told reporters on a tarmac. “That’s what happens when you have countries that have been going at it for a long time.” He added that it will “get back together.” 

In Armenia, the spread of COVID-19, which had exploded to dangerous levels with the onset of the war, subsided somewhat from its peak of over 2,000 new cases per day late last week. On Tuesday, the number of new cases was 1,600, with 26 patients succumbing to the disease. Of the deceased, all but one had preexisting conditions, and all were over 60 years old. Armenian health officials have been issuing warnings on several occasions to respect social distancing measures in order to protect the soldiers going to the front. Decreasing case numbers over the summer and the onset of fighting encouraged many to abandon these health practices, but with numbers soaring and officials making appeals to patriotism, masks have once again become ubiquitous across the country. 

In a second address to the nation in as many days, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared, “Today, Artsakh is—though wounded—still standing primarily because of the heroism of our army and our people.” Mentioning that Armenia’s Armed Forces remained well-supplied in both weaponry and equipment, he insisted that at the right moment, “a massive counterattack would lead to the complete destruction of the invaders.” The Prime Minister also referred to his Facebook Live comments from Monday following the collapse of the US-brokered ceasefire in which he underscored Armenia’s willingness to compromise but never capitulate. Pashinyan said Monday’s speech sought two objectives: “to show the international community the Armenian side’s constructive approach and our people’s firm determination to fight for Artsakh’s legitimate rights.”

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

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