YEREVAN—Armenia’s army is bracing for a possible attack on Shushi as Azeri forces continue desperate attempts to reach the city before winter. According to the Armenian Ministry of Defense, various formations of Azeri infantry have been discovered and eliminated to the south of the fortress city in what MOD spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan has dubbed a “sweep up operation” in the strategic Berdzor corridor which links the two Armenian republics.
Armenian sources claim that a concentration of Azerbaijani armor mustering south of the village of Karin Tak was wiped out by concentrated fire, while a sniper team reportedly took out an Azerbaijani platoon which had ventured into the village of Lisagor, which lies directly on the strategic Goris-Stepanakert highway, roughly 11 KM (seven miles) from Shushi itself as the crow flies.
With ongoing hostilities so close to the town of Berdzor, the Armenian Army chose to temporarily close the important highway to all non-military traffic until the threat was entirely neutralized. Azeri fire near the road also prevented almost 80 foreign reporters from leaving Artsakh “without risking their lives” according to the non-profit Reporters Without Borders (RWB). Azerbaijani Presidential spokesman Hikmet Hadjiev responded to RWB’s plea to maintain safe passage to civilians, accusing Armenia of unilaterally shutting the road. However, his claim that both the Karvajar and Berdzor highways remained “under Armenian control” seemingly contradicted claims he had maintained since late September that Azeri forces had captured the Mrav mountain range, which stretches along the Karvajar highway.
While Hovhannisyan didn’t deny that the Azerbaijanis were aiming for a symbolic capture of Shushi, he underplayed the threat to the city. According to him, guerrilla-style battles have continued all night and all day today, in which Armenian forces uncovered and eliminated Azerbaijani infantry units in the forests south of the city. “Attackers usually come towards the defenders,” he said, describing the military’s active defense tactics, “but in this case, the defenders are going after the would-be attackers.” He also unveiled that Azerbaijani flags were found in the pockets of each and every Azeri body, speculating that Baku was hoping to capture the city by November 9—National Flag Day in Azerbaijan. This, he predicted, would not succeed. “As our ‘cleaning crews’ continue their work in the forests, their hiding places will become hell for them,” Hovhannisyan added.
Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan, who last week had called on the Armenian people to take up arms to defend Shushi and promised to punish the enemy at its gates, was seen inspecting defenses on Thursday in full body armor, accompanied by Armenian Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan. “Every effort is being made to keep the fortress city impregnable,” he assured after his visit. “Shushi, with its rich cultural and spiritual values and traditions, is one of our greatest legacies we have inherited from our ancestors, and we must pass it on to new generations in the same Armenian spirit.”
In Moscow, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that Azerbaijan’s importation of Syrian jihadis risked turning parts of the Caucasus into a “terrorist enclave,” which Russia would not tolerate. The Russian Federation had earlier publicly reiterated its commitment to ensure Armenia’s territorial sovereignty in the event of a foreign attack.
However, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev rejected the Russian statement in an interview with Spanish media. He instead accused Russia of turning a blind eye to what he insists is the presence of foreign mercenaries fighting on the Armenian side. He further accused Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of “spreading unverified, groundless so-called information and rumors.” He also declared that he had no intention to meet with his Armenian counterparts for any peace negotiations other than the “removal of Armenian troops” from Artsakh.
This statement was in contrast to comments by Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan who announced that his government was still committed to working within the OSCE framework to ensure a lasting ceasefire. “Among the most important issues is the introduction of verification mechanisms to enable us to maintain the ceasefire more effectively,” he said.