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Khojaly massacre

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Khojaly massacre
Part of the Nagorno-Karabakh War
Khojaly Genocide memorial 3.JPG
Khojaly Massacre Memorial in The Hague, Netherlands
LocationKhojaly, Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan
Date26 February 1992
TargetAzerbaijani residents
Deaths161+ or 200+ (Human Rights Watch)[1][2]
485 (Azerbaijani parliament figure)[3]
613 (Azerbaijani government claim)[4]

The Khojaly massacre, also known as the Khojaly tragedy, was the mass murder[3] of at least 161 ethnic Azerbaijani civilians from the town of Khojaly on 26 February 1992. According to the Azerbaijani side, as well as the Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers,[6][7] the massacre was committed by the ethnic Armenian armed forces, as well as some military personnel of the 366th CIS regiment who were not acting on orders from their command.[5][8] The death toll claimed by Azerbaijani authorities is 613 civilians, including 106 women and 63 children.[4] The event became the largest massacre in the course of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.[2]

Western governments and media use "Khojaly massacre", "Khojaly tragedy" or the "Battle for Khojaly" to refer to the incident.[9] Azerbaijani sources[10][11] occasionally refer to the massacre as the "Khojaly genocide" (Azerbaijani: Xocalı soyqırımı) and the "Khojaly tragedy" (Azerbaijani: Xocalı faciəsi).[12]


During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis became victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing, which resulted in numerous casualties and displacement of large groups of people.[3] By 1992 the conflict had escalated into a full-scale war. In February 1992 the capital of Karabakh, Khankendi, was under a blockade by Azerbaijani forces.[13]

The town of Khojaly was on the road from Shusha and Khankendi to Agdam and had the region's only airport. The airport was of vital importance for the survival of the population in Karabakh, which had no land connection with Armenia and was under a total blockade by Azerbaijan. According to reports from Human Rights Watch, Khojaly was used as a base for Azerbaijani forces shelling the city of Stepanakert. The indiscriminate shelling and sniping killed or maimed hundreds of civilians, destroyed homes, hospitals and other objects that are not legitimate military targets, and generally terrorized the civilian population.[1][14][15] Khojaly was shelled by Armenian forces almost daily during the winter of 1991–1992, and people grew accustomed to spending nights in basements.[16] During the winter of 1992, Armenian forces went on the offensive, forcing almost the entire Azerbaijani population of the enclave to flee, and committing what HRW describes as "unconscionable acts of violence against civilians" as they fled.[1] In 1988 the town had 2,135 inhabitants. Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh War and the population exchanges between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Meskhetian Turk refugees leaving Central Asia and subsequently settling in Khojaly.[17][18] According to Thomas de Waal, Khojaly has been the focus of a large resettlement program by the Azerbaijan government in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This coincided with the Nagorno Karabakh War, and increased the population to 6200 by 1991[19].

In October 1991, the Nagorno Karabakh forces cut the road connecting Khojaly and Aghdam, so that the only way to reach the town was by helicopter. Khojaly was defended by local OMON forces under the command of Alif Hajiyev, which numbered about 160 or so lightly armed men.[3] Before the attack, Khojaly was shelled daily, and was totally blockaded, with no supply of electricity, gas and water.[20][21]

According to Memorial, from autumn 1991 Khojaly was practically blockaded by the Armenian armed forces, and after the withdrawal of the Soviet Internal Troops from Karabakh the blockade became total. Some inhabitants left the blockaded town, but the civilian population was not fully evacuated, despite insistent demands of the head of executive power of Khojaly Elman Mammadov.[22]


Ambulance cars carrying dead Azerbaijanis from Khojaly in Baku

According to Human Rights Watch, the tragedy struck when "a large column of residents, accompanied by a few dozen retreating fighters, fled the city as it fell to Armenian forces. As they approached the border with Azerbaijan, they came across an Armenian military post and were cruelly fired upon".[1][23][24]

According to Memorial, part of the population started to leave Khojaly soon after the assault began, trying to flee towards Agdam, and armed people from the town's garrison were among some of the fleeing groups. People left in two directions: (1) from the east side of the town northeastwards along the river, passing Askeran to their left (this route, according to Armenian officials, was provided as a "free corridor"); (2) from the north side of the town northeastwards, passing Askeran to their right (it appears that fewer refugees fled using this route). Thus, the majority of civilians left Khojaly, while around 200–300 people stayed in Khojaly, hiding in their houses and basements. As a result of the shelling of the town, an unascertained number of civilians were killed in Khojaly during the assault. The Armenian side practically refused to tell Memorial observers how many people so perished. The refugees in both groups were fired upon, as a result of which many of them were killed. Those who remained alive dispersed. Running refugees came across Armenian military posts and were fired upon. Some refugees managed to escape to Agdam, some, mainly women and children (the exact number is impossible to determine), froze to death while wandering around in mountains, some were captured near the villages of Nakhichevanik and Pirjamal.[22]

Helsinki Watch reported that "the militia, still in uniform, and some still carrying their guns, were interspersed with the masses of civilians" and according to eyewitness accounts there was shooting between Armenian and the Azerbaijani forces which were mixed with the civilians.[25] At the same time, Human Rights Watch and Memorial stated that the killing of civilians could not be justified under any circumstances. Human Rights Watch noted that "the attacking party [i.e., Karabakh Armenian forces] is still obliged to take precautionary measures to avoid or minimize civilian casualties. In particular, the party must suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the attack may be expected to cause civilian casualties that are excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. The circumstances surrounding the attack at Nakhichevanik on those fleeing from Khojaly indicate that Armenian forces and the troops of the 366th CIS regiment (who were not apparently acting on orders from their commanders) deliberately disregarded this customary law restraint on attacks".[26][27] However, the obligation to protect the civilians was likewise breached by the Azerbaijani side. As stated by HRW report:

The parties may not use civilians to shield military targets from attack or to shield military operations including retreats. Thus a party that intersperses combatants with fleeing civilians puts those civilians at risk and violates its obligation to protect its own civilians.[28]

The Armenian side refers to Ayaz Mutalibov's interview to claim that the massacre had been committed not by Armenian soldiers but by Popular Front of Azerbaijan militants who allegedly shot their own civilians escaping through the corridor. Nevertheless, attempting to minimize his own role did not help him.[29] In one of his interviews Mutalibov stated that the event was "organized" by his political opponents to force his resignation.[30][31] The interview was much cited in Armenia.[29]

As the survivors of Khojaly say, all this was organized to create a cause for my resignation. A certain power was working for discrediting the President. I don't think the Armenians, who are very accurate and who know very well how to behave in such situations, would have allowed the Azerbaijanis to obtain evidence from Khojaly, which would expose them in committing fascist acts… I assume that someone had a vested interest in showing these photos in the session of the Supreme Council and placing all the blame on me… However, the general background of arguments is, that a corridor by which the people could leave, was, nevertheless, left by Armenians. Why then would they begin to shoot?"[32][33]

In later interviews, however, Mutalibov would go on to condemn the Armenians, claiming that they blatantly misinterpreted his words.[34] He also denied ever accusing the Popular Front of Azerbaijan of having anything to do with these events, saying that he only meant that the PFA took advantage of the situation to focus the popular resentment on him. Mutalibov stated that after the massacre he called the speaker of the Supreme Soviet of NKAO Artur Mkrtchyan, and the latter assured him that the people of Khojaly were given a corridor to escape, and he only referred to Mkrtchyan's words, without making any assertions as to whether the corridor actually existed.[35][36]

The Armenian side officially asserts that the killings occurred as a result of wartime military operations, and were caused by the prevention of the evacuation of town inhabitants by Azerbaijani forces, who shot those who attempted to flee.[37] This explanation however is widely disputed, among others, the executive director of Human Rights Watch has stated that: "we place direct responsibility for the civilian deaths with Karabakh Armenian forces. Indeed, neither our report nor that of Memorial includes any evidence to support the argument that Azerbaijani forces obstructed the flight of, or fired on Azeri civilians".[26] British journalist Thomas de Waal noted that "the overwhelming evidence of what happened has not stopped some Armenians, in distasteful fashion, trying to muddy the waters".[38] However, De Waal has also stated that the tragedy in Khojaly was a result of a chaotic situation, and not a "deliberately planned" action by the Armenians.[39][40]

At the same time, some Armenian sources admitted the guilt of the Armenian side. According to Markar Melkonian, the brother of the Armenian military leader Monte Melkonian, "Khojaly had been a strategic goal, but it had also been an act of revenge." The date of the massacre in Khojaly had a special significance: it was the run-up to the fourth anniversary of the anti-Armenian pogrom in the city of Sumgait where the civilian Armenian population was brutally murdered solely because of their ethnic origin.[3] Melkonian particularly mentions the role of the fighters of two Armenian military detachments called the Arabo and Aramo, who stabbed to death many Azeri civilians, despite strict orders given by Monte Melkonian, that no captives were to be harmed.[41]

According to Serzh Sargsyan, long-time Defense Minister and Chairman of Security Council of Armenia who was also the president of Armenia, "A lot was exaggerated" in the casualties, and the fleeing Azerbaijanis had put up armed resistance. At the same time he stated: "Before Khojali, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype]. And that's what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from Baku and Sumgait. Although I think that is still very much exaggerated, very much. Azerbaijanis needed an excuse to equate a place to Sumgait, but they can not be compared. Yes, in fact, was in Khojaly civilians, but along with the civilians were soldiers. [W]hen a shell is flying through the air, it doesn't distinguish between a civilian resident and a soldier; it doesn't have eyes. If the civilian population stays there, even though there was a perfect opportunity to leave, that means that they also are taking part in military operations . . ."[3][42][43]

According to the Memorial,

Official representatives of the NKR and members of the Armenian armed forces explained the death of civilians in the zone of the 'free corridor' by the fact that there were armed people fleeing together with the refugees, who were firing at Armenian outposts, thus drawing return fire, as well as by an attempted breakthrough by the main Azerbaijani forces. According to members of the Armenian armed forces, the Azerbaijani forces attempted to battle through from Agdam in the direction of the 'free corridor'. At the moment when the Armenian outposts were fighting off this attack, the first groups of Khojaly refugees approached them from the rear. The armed people who were among the refugees began firing at the Armenian outposts. During the battle, one outpost was destroyed, but the fighters from another outpost, of whose existence the Azerbaijanis were unaware, opened fire from a close distance at the people coming from Khojaly. According to testimonies of Khojaly refugees (including those published in the press), the armed people inside the refugee column did exchange gunfire with Armenian outposts, but on each occasion the fire was opened first from the Armenian side.

The site of the mass killing of Khojaly inhabitants was filmed on videotape by Azerbaijani journalist Chingiz Mustafayev. He was accompanied by the Russian journalist Yuri Romanov during the first helicopter flight to the scene of the tragedy. Romanov described in his memoir how he looked out of the window of the helicopter and literally jumped back from an incredibly horrible view. The whole area up to the horizon was covered with dead bodies of women, elderly people and boys and girls of all ages, from newly born to teenagers. From the mass of bodies two figures caught his sight. An old woman with uncovered gray head was lying face down next to a small girl in a blue jacket. Their legs were tied with barbed wire, and the old woman's hands were tied as well. Both were shot in their heads, and the little girl in her last move was stretching out her hands to her dead grandmother. Shocked, Romanov even forgot about his camera, but after recovering from the shock started filming. However, the helicopter came under the fire, and they had to leave.[44]

Anatol Lieven wrote in The Times after visiting the site of the massacre: "Scattered amid the withered grass and bushes along a small valley and across the hillside beyond are the bodies of last Wednesday’s massacre by Armenian forces of Azerbaijani refugees. ... Of the 31 we saw, only one policeman and two apparent national volunteers were wearing uniform. All the rest were civilians, including eight women and three small children. Two groups, apparently families, had fallen together, the children cradled in the women’s arms. Several of them, including one small girl, had terrible head injuries: only her face was left. Survivors have told how they saw Armenians shooting them point blank as they lay on the ground."[45]

Helen Womack reported in The Independent: "The exact number of victims is still unclear, but there can be little doubt that Azeri civilians were massacred by Armenian fighters in the snowy mountains of Nagorny Karabakh last week. Refugees from the enclave town of Khojaly, sheltering in the Azeri border town of Agdam, give largely consistent accounts of how their enemies attacked their homes on the night of 25 February, chased those who fled and shot them in the surrounding forests. Yesterday I saw 75 freshly dug graves in one cemetery in addition to four mutilated corpses we were shown in the mosque when we arrived in Agdam late on Tuesday. I also saw women and children with bullet wounds, in a makeshift hospital in a string of railway carriages at the station",[46] "I have little doubt that on this occasion, two weeks ago, the Azeris were the victims of Armenian brutality. In the past it has been the other way round"[47]

Another Russian journalist, Victoria Ivleva entered Khojaly after it fell to the Armenian armed forces. She took the pictures of the streets of the town strewn with dead bodies of its inhabitants, including women and children.[48] In the article that she wrote for a Russian newspaper she described how she saw a large crowd of Meskhetian Turks from Khojaly, who were led to captivity by the Armenian militants. She mentioned that she was hit by an Armenian soldier who took her for one of the captives, when she was helping a woman who was falling behind the crowd with four children, one of which was wounded, and the other one was newly born. The captives were later exchanged or released, and in 2011 Ivleva found in Azerbaijan that woman. Her little child grew up, but did not speak because of the shock she suffered in her childhood.[49]

A Khojaly survivor, Salman Abasov told that:

Several days before the tragedy the Armenian told us several times over the radio that they would capture the town and demanded that we leave it. For a longtime helicopters flew into Khojali and it wasn't clear if anyone thought about our fate, took an interest in us. We received practically no help. Moreover, when it was possible to take our women, children out of the town, we were persuaded not to do so.[50]

Azerbaijani filmmaker Ramiz Fataliev in his interview testified that the Azerbaijani authorities did not evacuate the civilians from Khojaly because they thought that by doing so they would invite the Armenians to occupy Khojaly.

On the 22nd of February, in the president's, prime-minister's, KGB minister's and others' presence, the meeting of the National Security Council was held… At the meeting a resolution was made not to evacuate the people from KHOJALY. It was considered that if we evacuated the population, we would invite Armenians to occupy the settlement. That is, we would ourselves incite Armenians to attack. Even the members of the Security Council didn't believe that Armenians could commit this sort of actions that resulted in genocide. They thought that if the population left the settlement we ourselves would give Khojaly up.[51]

Another important fact to note is that after the seizure of Khojaly the Armenians allowed the Azerbaijanis to claim their dead, based on which the Azerbaijanis later grounded their accusations of massacre.[52][53] As argued by Walker, the group committing a massacre would have hardly taken up any of these measures.[52]

Role of the 366th CIS regiment

According to international observers, soldiers and officers of 366th regiment took part in the attack on Khojaly.[54] Memorial called for investigation of the facts of participation of CIS soldiers in the military operations in the region and transfer of military equipment to the sides of the conflict. Soon after the massacre, in early March 1992, the regiment was withdrawn from Nagorno-Karabakh. Paratroopers evacuated the personnel of the regiment by helicopter, but over 100 soldiers and officers remained in Stepanakert and joined the Armenian forces, including the commander of the 2nd battalion major Seyran Ohanyan,[3] who later served as a Minister of Defense of Armenia. Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper reported that:

despite categorical orders of the command of the military district, some military personnel of the 366th regiment took part in military operations near Khojaly on Karabakhi side on the 20s of February. At least two such instances were recorded. And during evacuation of the military personnel of the regiment paratroopers selectively searched several servicemen and found large amounts of money on them, including foreign currency.[55]

Reports about warnings and a free corridor

The report of Memorial stated that the Armenian side claimed that a free corridor was provided for fleeing civilians. The Memorial report says:

According to the officials of the NKR and those taking part in the assault, the Khojaly population was informed about the existence of this 'corridor' through loudspeakers mounted on armoured personnel carriers. NKR officials also noted that, several days prior to the assault, leaflets had been dropped on Khojaly from helicopters, urging the Khojaly population to use the 'free corridor'. However, not a single copy of such a leaflet has been provided to Memorial's observers in support of this assertion. Likewise, no traces of such leaflets have been found by Memorial's observers in Khojaly. When interviewed, Khojaly refugees said that they had not heard about such leaflets. Several days prior to the assault, the representatives of the Armenian side had, on repeated occasions, informed the Khojaly authorities by radio about the upcoming assault and urged them to immediately evacuate the population from the town. The fact that this information had been received by the Azerbaijani side and transferred to Baku is confirmed by Baku newspapers (Bakinskiy Rabochiy)[56]

Armenian fighters claimed to HRW investigators that they sent ultimata to the Azerbaijani forces in Khojaly warning that unless missile attacks from that town on Stepanakert ceased, Armenian forces would attack. The report quotes the testimony of an Azerbaijani woman: "According to A.H., an Azerbaijani woman interviewed by Helsinki Watch in Baky, "After Armenians seized Malybeyli, they made an ultimatum to Khojaly... and that Khojaly people had better leave with white flag. Alif Gajiev [the head of the militia in Khojaly] told us this on 15 February, but this didn't frighten me or other people. We never believed they could occupy Khojaly""[57]

Elmar Mammadov, the Mayor of Khojaly testified that the Azerbaijani authorities knew about the attack but they took no measure to evacuate the civilians:

On 25 February 1992 at 8:30 pm we were told that the tanks of the enemy have been placed around the city in a fighting position. We informed everybody about this over the radio. Furthermore on 24 February I called Aghdam and told them, that a captured Armenian fighter has informed us on the impending attack... There was no response. I have also asked to send a helicopter for the transportation of the elderly, women and children. But no help came.[58]

The Memorial report quotes the words of Elmar Mamedov published in the newspaper Russkaya Misl (3.04.92): "We knew that this corridor was provided for the exit of the civilians..."

No witnesses interviewed by Helsinki Watch on the Azerbaijani side said that they knew beforehand of such a corridor.[27]


Khojaly refugees
Khojaly Massacre

The Khojaly massacre was described by Human Rights Watch as "the largest massacre to date in the conflict" over Nagorno-Karabakh.[2] Memorial, a Moscow-based human rights group, stated in their report that actions of Armenian militants were in gross violation of a number of basic international human rights conventions.[59] Estimating the number of the civilians killed in the massacre, Human Rights Watch stated that "there are no exact figures for the number of Azeri civilians killed because Karabakh Armenian forces gained control of the area after the massacre". A 1993 report by Human Rights Watch put the number of deaths at least 161,[1] although later reports state the number of deaths as at least 200. According to Human Rights Watch, "while it is widely accepted that 200 Azeris were murdered, as many as 500-1,000 may have died".[2]

Memorial stated that by 28 March 1992 over 700 civilians from Khojaly, mostly woman and children detained both in the city and on their way to Aghdam, were delivered to the Azerbaijani side.[59] The claim of Czech journalist Dana Mazalova about the existence of a free corridor for safe passage was disputed by Russian journalist Victoria Ivleva. Ivleva stated that Mazalova was lying and that she did not know if Mazalova was paid by the Armenian side.[60] Mazalova also claimed that in Baku she had seen Chingiz Mustafayev's unedited footage of the dead bodies without the signs of mutilation that were shown in later footage.[38][61][62]

Armenian media has reported that the Azerbaijani media has presented pictures of victims of other events, such as the Kosovo War from 1998/1999, Afghanistan, earthquake victims in Turkey, and refugees from other regions as "Azerbaijani victims of the Khojaly massacre".[62][63][64][65] In 2019, in a photo exhibition in Tehran organised by the Azerbaijani embassy, a photograph held in the collection of the Library of Congress showing victims of the Armenian Genocide was displayed as being an image of the Khojaly massacre.[66] Azerbaijani media has reported that Armenian media has presented images of victims of the Khojaly massacre as Armenian victims of the Baku Pogrom, the Sumgait pogrom, and the Armenian Genocide.[67][68][69]


Khojaly Massacre Memorial
Chodschali-Denkmal in Berlin
Khojaly Massacre Memorial (Berlin) Reading garden.jpg
LocationZehlendorf, Berlin, Germany
DesignerAkif Asgarov
Salehab Mammadov
Ali Ibadullayev
Ebrahim Ehrari
Height2 m
Completion date2011
Opening date30 May 2011
Dedicated toVictims of the Khojaly Massacre


Khojaly Massacre was commemorated by a number of international organizations and US states, and memorials were created in various locations around the globe.

On February 2014 the ceremony of opening the monument to the victims of the Khojaly massacre was held in the city of Uşak of Turkey.[70][71][72]

In popular culture

The footage of Chingiz Mustafayev greatly increased the awareness of the campaign.[73] The footage of the event was also broadcast by American television channel CNN.[74]

On 11 May 2014, Arda Turan, of Atlético Madrid who is sponsored by Azerbaijan,[75] has commemorated the Khojaly Massacre.[76][77][78] Turan's ambassador activities are aimed to raise awareness about this issue and promoting world peace.[79][80] However, the sponsorship by Azerbaijan has been condemned by Reporters Without Borders[81] and Atlético Madrid admits its sponsorship deal with Azerbaijan has a political dimension, saying the intention is to "promote the image of Azerbaijan".[75]


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External links


From an Azerbaijani perspective

From an Armenian perspective

Coordinates: 39°54′40″N 46°47′21″E / 39.91111°N 46.78917°E / 39.91111; 46.78917