People hold Azeri flag as they celebrate the capture the town of Shusha in Baku - TOFIK BABAYEV /AFP
People hold Azeri flag as they celebrate the capture the town of Shusha in Baku – TOFIK BABAYEV /AFP

Azerbaijan declared a major breakthrough in its war with Armenia on Sunday after claiming to have captured a key strategic town in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh.

Azeri forces said they had taken Shusha, a hilltop town deep inside Nagorno Karabakh that used to be the main stronghold of ethnic Azeris in the region. It gives them a key vantage point from which to begin a bombardment and siege of the breakaway republic’s capital, Stepanakert, which lies nine miles away in the valley below. 

Armenian forces denied that the town had been recaptured, saying that heavy fighting was still going on. But Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliev, took to national television to proclaim that the town had fallen to his forces.  

“With great pride and joy, I inform you that the town of Shusha has been liberated,” he said, in an address in which he appeared in military uniform. His speech prompted street celebrations in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, where flag-waving crowds gathered.

Although home to barely 5,000 people, Shusha has powerful symbolic value for both sides in the conflict. For ethnic Azeris, it is regarded as a centre of Azeri poetry and literature. For ethnic Armenians – who know the town as Shushi – its imposing Holy Saviour cathedral is an important bastion of Christianity in Nagorno Karabakh.

In the early 1990s, when Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh fought their war to secede from Azerbaijan, Shusha was used by Azeri forces to mount massive artillery bombardments of Stepanakert, sometimes firing up to 150 missiles per day. Armenian forces recaptured the town in 1992, in what is still celebrated as the breakthrough battle in their war for secession.

Last summer, Nagorno Karabakh’s government announced plans to move its national assembly from Stepanakert to Shusha – a move that infuriated President Aliyev, who described the town as an “ancient pearl of Azerbaijani culture.” Some even cite it as one reason for the start of the war six weeks ago, in which at least 1,000 people have died.

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