Karabakh says Azerbaijan forces closing in on key town of Shusha

Yerevan (AFP) –


The leader of Armenian separatists in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region said Thursday that Azerbaijani forces had advanced to within a few kilometres of the key town of Shusha.

"The enemy is several kilometres from Shushi, five kilometres (three miles) at most," separatist president Arayik Harutyunyan said in a video on Facebook.

"The enemy's main goal is to capture Shushi... whoever controls Shushi controls Artsakh," he said, using the Armenian names for the town and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Standing in front of Shusha's famed Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral, he called on Armenians to come to the defence of the strategically important town, the second-largest in Karabakh after the main city Stepanakert.

"In the next few days we need to reverse this situation at the front and punish the enemy right at the gates of Shushi. Let's unite and fight together," he said.

Gaining control of Shusha would be a major victory for Azerbaijani forces, who have been making gains against Armenian separatist fighters since new fighting erupted over Nagorno-Karabakh a month ago.

The town is located on strategic heights over Stepanakert and on the road linking the city with Armenian territory.

Like Stepanakert, Shusha has come under regular shelling since the fighting broke out and its cathedral was damaged in rocket fire in early October.

Shusha was a strategic stronghold for Azerbaijani forces during the war in the 1990s that saw the Armenian separatists seize control of Nagorno-Karabakh.

For months in the winter of 1992, rockets rained down on Stepanakert from Shusha, killing thousands.

When separatist forces took control of Shusha and the rest of Karabakh, the cathedral was restored and became an important site for visitors from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.