A missile strike yesterday leveled a row of homes in Azerbaijan’s second-largest city of Ganja, killing 12 and injuring more than 40 people in their sleep in a sharp escalation of the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The early hours attack, which saw a second missile strike another part of Ganja and a third reach the nearby strategic city of Mingecevir, came hours after Azerbaijani forces shelled the ethnic Armenian separatist region’s capital Stepanakert.
The seeming tit-for-tat attacks further undermines international efforts to calm a resurgence of fighting between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis before it draws in regional powers Russia and Turkey.
Witnesses in Ganja saw rows of houses turned to rubble by the strike, which shattered the walls and ripped the roofs off buildings in the surrounding streets.
People ran outside in shock and tears, stumbling through dark muddy alleys in their slippers, some wearing bathroom robes and pajamas.
The attack came only six days after a missile struck another residential part of the city of more than 300,000 people, killing 10 civilians and leaving many on edge.
At the scene of the latest strike, exploding shells rumbled in the distance as rescuers and red helmets used sniffer dogs to search for signs on life.
“We were sleeping. The kids were watching TV,” Rubaba Zhafarova, 65, said in front of her destroyed home.
“All the houses around here are destroyed. Many people are under the rubble. Some are dead, some are wounded,” she said.
Hikmat Hajiyev, an assistant to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, wrote on Twitter that according to “initial information, more than 20 houses were destroyed” yesterday.
In televised remarks, Aliyev vowed to strike back against Armenia, saying that the Azerbaijan’s army would “take revenge on the battlefield.”
Nagorno-Karabakh’s military said that Azerbaijani forces had stepped up their attacks on Friday across the front, shelling Stepanakert and the nearby town of Susi.
The separatists “carried out equivalent operations to stop adversary fire,” they said in a statement released by the Armenian government.
Rescuers periodically called for silence so they could hear the sounds of survivors as the hours passed, pulling passports, keys, bracelets and items of clothing from the debris.
They called in sniffer dogs and watered down the suffocating columns of dust with hoses from a fire truck.
“One woman was missing her feet. Someone else was missing an arm at the elbow,” said Elmir Shirinzaday, 26, in a visible state of shock.
Rescuers struggled to lift heavy boulders of rubble in search for signs of life, periodically taking breaks to try and calm distraught victims.
“My wife was there, my wife was there,” one man cried inconsolably while being walked toward an ambulance by a paramedic.
At around the same time in Mingecevir, an hour’s drive north of Ganja, witnesses reported hearing the impact of a huge blast that shook buildings.
The city is protected by a missile defense system because it is home to a strategic dam, and it was not immediately clear if the missile was destroyed or had made impact.
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