A rocket strike flattened a series of houses in Azerbaijan’s second-largest city of Ganga on Saturday, killing 12 and injuring more than 40 people in their sleep as the conflict escalated into the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The first hour attack, which saw a second rocket hit another part of Ghana and a third reach the nearby strategic city of Mingevivir, came hours after Azerbaijani forces fired on the nationalist separatist capital.
The apparent attacks further undermine international efforts to quell a resurgence of conflict between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis before attracting regional forces to Russia and Turkey.
An AFP team in Ghana saw rows of houses being reduced to rubble by a strike that tore down walls and smashed roofs of buildings in the surrounding streets.
People ran outside in shock and tears, stumbling through the dark muddy alleys in their slippers, some wearing bathrobes and pajamas.
– Second attack –
The attack came just six days after a rocket hit another residential part of the city with more than 300,000 people, killing 10 civilians and leaving many behind.
At the scene of the latest strike, explosive shells struck in the background as rescuers and red helmets used sniffer dogs to look for signs of life.
“We were sleeping. “The children were watching TV,” said Rubaba Zhafarova, 65, in front of her damaged house.
“All the houses here are destroyed. Many people are under the rubble. Some are dead, some are injured.”
Hikmat Hajiyev, an aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, wrote on Twitter that according to “initial information, more than 20 houses were destroyed” on Saturday.
The Nagorno-Karabakh army said Azerbaijani forces intensified their attacks on Friday, firing on Stefanakert and the nearby town of Sushi.
The separatists “carried out equivalent operations to stop the opposition fire,” the Armenian government said in a statement.
– Passports, keys, bracelets –
Rescuers periodically called for silence to hear the sounds of survivors as the hours passed, pulling passports, keys, bracelets and clothes from the wreckage.
They called sniffer dogs and watered the suffocating dust columns with pipes from a fire truck.
“A woman was missing from her legs. “Someone else was missing an arm in the elbow,” said Elmir Sirinzade, 26, in a state of visible shock.
Rescuers struggled to lift heavy stones from the rubble to look for signs of life, taking periodic breaks to try and calm victims of the distress.
“My wife was there, my wife was there,” one man shouted unbearably as he walked to an ambulance from a paramedic.
At about the same time in the town of Mingecevir, an hour’s drive north of Ganja, AFP heard the impact of a huge explosion that shook buildings.
Mingecevir is protected by a missile defense system because it hosts a strategic barrier and it was not immediately clear whether the missile was destroyed in the air or had an impact.
The Ministry of Defense said Mingevivir had “suffered a fire” but did not provide any other immediate details.
An Azeri official said another rocket struck a separate, industrial area of Ghana at about the same time.
There were no immediate details of the attack.
– Decades of conflict –
The decade of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted again on September 27 and has so far killed more than 700 people, including about 80 civilians.
The mountainous western region of Azerbaijan has remained under separatist Armenian control since the 1994 ceasefire that ended a brutal war that killed 30,000 people.
Armenia, which backs Nagorno-Karabakh but does not recognize its independence, has acknowledged that Azerbaijani forces have made significant gains on the front last week.
An AFP team was evacuated by the Azerbaijani army on Friday to a resettled settlement in the southern part of the conflict zone near the Iranian border.
Azerbaijani officials say they are currently in control of the Jabrayil facility, which includes strategic heights overlooking a fertile valley during the post-Soviet war.
The current escalation is the deadliest and longest since that six-year conflict.
zak / jbr / dl