A damaged residential apartment building following shelling is seen in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, declared that it started what it called an "anti-terrorist operation" targeting Armenian military positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and officials in that region said there was heavy artillery firing around its capital. (AP Photo/Siranush Sargsyan)
Azerbaijan launches operation against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh
02:43 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

At least 200 people have been killed and over 400 others wounded in a military operation by Azerbaijan in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, according to an official in Armenian-controlled territory there.

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Tuesday it had begun an “anti-terrorist” campaign in the region, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and which has been the cause of two wars between the neighbors in the past three decades, most recently in 2020.

The office of the ombudsman in Nagorno-Karabakh said at least 200 people had died, including ten confirmed civilian deaths and five children, in a statement online late on Wednesday, after Armenian media and local authorities reported heavy bombardment of the regional capital of Stepanakert.

Tensions have been simmering around the region for months, after Azerbaijani troops blockaded the Lachin corridor in December, cutting off the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and preventing the import of food to its roughly 120,000 inhabitants.

Russian peacekeepers, who deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh under the terms of the 2020 ceasefire, have been tasked with preventing a fresh conflict breaking out. But Moscow has been accused of being unable or unwilling to intervene to protect Armenia, its long-term ally, in the face of continuing aggression from Azerbaijan.

Karabakh authorities said they have asked for immediate talks with Azerbaijan, amid continued shelling of the region.

In response, the Azerbaijani Presidency said it is willing to meet with Karabakh Armenians, but added in a statement: “To stop anti-terrorist measures, illegal Armenian armed groups must raise the white flag, surrender all weapons, and the illegal regime must dissolve itself. Otherwise, anti-terrorist measures will be continued until the end.”

CNN has been unable to verify the claims of either side in the conflict.

A girl embraces her relative sitting in a shelter during shelling in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.

‘Systematic shelling’

An Azerbaijani presidential adviser on Tuesday played down reports of civilian casualties inside Nagorno-Karabakh, but said “collateral damage” is a possibility in any military operation.

Confronted with reports of civilian casualties during Azerbaijan’s military operation in the disputed region on Tuesday, Hikmet Hajiyev, a political adviser to the president of Azerbaijan, told CNN’s Matthew Chance in an exclusive interview that he doubted their accuracy.

Hajiyev also said that Azerbaijan’s “counterterrorism action” against Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Army was triggered by the death of six people in landmine explosions inside Azerbaijan, including two civilians and four police officers.

“The Azerbaijani government has made a decision to start with an unlimited, but local counterterrorism actions and measures on the ground to neutralize finally the military installations of military infrastructure that illegally exists on our territory,” Hajiyev said.

He stressed that the military action would not stop until military forces inside the Nagorno-Karabakh disarm and “raise a white flag.”

Azerbaijan’s defense ministry demanded in a statement Tuesday “the complete withdrawal of ethnic Armenian troops and the dissolution of the government in Stepanakert” and said only “legitimate military targets are being incapacitated.”

“The only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is the unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and the dissolution of the puppet regime,” it said.

The ministry claimed its army had come under “systematic shelling” from Armenia’s armed forces, and that Armenia had fortified its positions, “bringing units to a high level of combat readiness.” It also alleged that mines had been planted in previously de-mined areas, and had already caused the death of two civilians.

Armenia denies claims that its army is in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia’s foreign ministry has rejected claims that the Armenian army was in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Armenia’s assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh is of a humanitarian nature, the need for which is further confirmed by the humanitarian crisis caused by the illegal blockade of the Lachin corridor,” it said in a statement.

Armenian news agency Armenpress reported that Nagorno-Karabakh’s army, which is not part of Armenia’s armed forces, is “displaying ‘resolute resistance’ to the Azeri military’s attempts to advance.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has convened a meeting of the Armenian Security Council against the backdrop of the situation in Karabakh.

Armenian news agency Armenpress said the city of Stepanakert City was under heavy Azerbaijani bombardment, and that mobile and internet connection had been disrupted.

“Recently, the Azerbaijani side has been carrying out daily troop transfers and stockpiling of various weapons, which were accompanied by intensive information and propaganda activities, preparing the ground for large-scale aggression against Artsakh,” the Foreign Ministry of Artsakh – the local term for Nagorno-Karabakh – said in a statement.

“Now we are witnessing how Azerbaijan, in order to implement its policy of genocide, is moving towards the physical destruction of the civilian population and the destruction of civilian objects.”

People run as gunfire and explosions are heard in Stepanakert, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in this screengrab obtained from a handout video.

The previous war, which ended in a crushing defeat for the de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh state backed by Armenia’s government, lasted 44 days, before a Moscow-broke