Shelling of Stepanakert

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Blockade and Shelling of Stepanakert
Part of the Nagorno-Karabakh War
Location Stepanakert
Azerbaijan (de jure)
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (de facto)
Date November 1991[1] – May 9, 1992[2][3]
Target Armenian civilians
Attack type
Bombing, shelling, artillery fire
Deaths 169 (October 1991–April 1992; according to NKR Interior Minister as quoted by Human Rights Watch)[4]
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators Azerbaijani Armed Forces

The Shelling of Stepanakert (Armenian: Ստեփանակերտի ռմբակոծումը) was a months-long campaign of intentional bombardment of civilian targets of the city of Stepanakert,[5] the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by Azerbaijan, in 1991 and 1992, during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. The bombardment of Stepanakert and adjacent Armenian towns and villages, which took place under the conditions of total blockade by Azerbaijan, caused widespread destruction and many civilian deaths.[6][7]

Human Rights Watch reported that the main bases used by Azerbaijani armed forces for the bombardment of Stepanakert included the towns of Khojaly and Shusha. Azerbaijani forces used weapons such as the BM-21 Grad multiple-launch rocket systems. The indiscriminate shelling, sniper shooting and aerial attacks killed or maimed hundreds of civilians and destroyed homes, hospitals and other buildings that were not legitimate military targets, and generally terrorized the civilian population.[8] As a result of the offensive launched by Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh more than 40,000 people became refugees, dozens of villages were burnt and ruined.[9]

According to Memorial Human Rights Center, the residential areas of both Stepanakert and Shushi were shelled on a regular basis with the use of artillery and rocket launchers. There were more destruction and casualties in Stepanakert than in Shusha, which could be explained by location of Stepanakert in the lowland and much higher intensity of shelling from Shusha due to Azerbaijan's capture of Soviet depots in Aghdam and other locales with more than 11,000 wagons full of rockets, including those for BM-21 MLRS.[10][11]

The indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas stopped only after the successful suppression of Azerbaijani military outposts in the nearby town of Shusha by Armenian units on May 8–9, 1992.[1][12]



Azerbaijan blockaded railroad lines and the delivery of oil and natural gas to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh since 1989. Since the fall of 1991 the imposed blockade became full and continuous. The blockades shattered the Armenian economy, sparked social unrest and created a devastating humanitarian crisis.[13] Throughout the spring of 1992, Stepanakert (which had fifty five thousand inhabitants) was under siege - Azerbaijan had cut all the land communication between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Stepanakert had no access by road to Armenia for almost two years and its only link to the outside world was by helicopter across the mountains to Armenia. Thus many of its residents had been virtually trapped there all that time.[14]

As a result of tightening of the blockade by Azerbaijan all essential supplies, including water, electricity, food and medicines were virtually cut off. The Armenians living in Stepanakert had to spend almost the whole time sheltering in basements and cellars in appalling conditions. According to Human Rights Watch,[9]

It was in these conditions of total blockade that Azerbaijan subjected Stepanakert to shelling and bombardment.[15]

Shelling and Bombardment[edit]

During the winter of 1991-92, Stepanakert was hit by artillery and aerial bombardment by Azerbaijani forces. In May 1992, when Helsinki Watch arrived to Stepanakert, the city had already suffered heavy destruction. On August 22–24 alone, Azerbaijani bombings had caused at least 40 civilian deaths and left 100 people wounded.

Helsinki Watch's report stated that the "Azerbaijani shelling and bombing were reckless and indiscriminate, and aimed at terrorizing and forcing out Armenian civilians. Like previous Azerbaijani attacks on Stepanakert, the shelling and bombing throughout the counter-offensive and beyond destroyed or damaged scores of homes and sometimes entire villages."[16] According to Caroline Cox, "I used to count 400 Grad missiles every day pounding in on Stepanakert."[17] The shelling aimed to intimidate and oust the Armenian civilian population from Karabakh and to take military control. In the words of the State Secretary of Azerbaijan in 1992 Lala-Shovket Gajiyeva, "For more than 100 days we were shelling Stepanakert, but the Armenians did not abandon their land".[18]

David Atkinson, a member of the Council of Europe, reminded PACE that he visited Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, and added that he "will never forget" the Azerbaijani bombing of Stepanakert during a report in January 25, 2005, during the PACE winter session.[19]

"Anyone could just get up with a hangover, after drinking the night before, sit behind the Grad and fire, fire, fire at Stepanakert without any aim, without any coordinates."

 —Azerbaijani soldier Aiaz Kerimov[14]

Geographically Stepanakert lay in the most vulnerable position, with Aghdam 15 miles to the East, Khojaly to the North and Shushi to the South. The Azeri controlled towns of Shushi and Khojalu were overlooking Stepanakert and were used as main bases for shelling and bombing the capital. Helsinki Watch writes, "While Azerbaijani forces held the town of Shusha, which overlooks Stepanakert, they pounded the latter with Grads and heavy artillery fire, hitting civilians, residential areas, hospitals, and the like... Russian pilot Anatolii Chistiakov said that the Azerbaijanis routinely ask mercenary pilots to drop tear gas to cause panic among civilians."[9]

The mainstay artillery platforms used in the bombardment, which began on January 10, 1992 and lasted for 4 months, was the Soviet built BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launcher capable of firing 40 rockets simultaneously, a modern variant of the widely used World War II weapon, the Katyusha. The GRAD launcher was similar to the Katyusha in that it did not have a well-guided missile system and hence the location of where it would hit was difficult to determine. Essentially, GRAD is designed to deliver anti-personnel devastation on an open battlefield, while the Azerbaijani Army used it to shell civilians in a densely populated capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Dubbed "flying telephone poles" due to their long, shaped charges, the missiles caused devastating damage to buildings including the destruction of residential houses, schools, the city's silk factory, maternity hospital and at least one kindergarten.[20]

On May 31, 1992, the Chicago Tribune wrote:[1]

The response of Karabakh's self-defense forces[edit]

By May 1992, Shusha was the only Azerbaijani-controlled area near Stepanakert during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which was used to launch GRAD missiles into Stepanakerts neighborhoods.[21] Almost all of the civilian population of Karabakh was concentrated in Stepanakert after leaving due to the battle zone, and even poorly aimed bombing by Azerbaijani aircraft resulted in heavy losses of civilians.[22] Karabakh's self-defense forces retaliated, and in two days of fighting captured Shusha the last Azerbaijani inhabited area in Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus they gained control over Nagorno-Karabakh, which brought an end to shelling and bombardment of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.[23][24]

Daily bombardment by Azerbaijan's Grad missiles and attacks on Goris and Kapan caused thousands of civilian and military deaths, and massive property destruction.[25] Bombs had been constantly directed towards Stepanakert, until the capture of Shusha, on May 8, 1992.[26]

The town of Khojaly was on the road from Shusha and Stepanakert 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 the Republic of 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 for shelling the city of Stepanakert. In February 1992 Karabakh self-defence forces captured Khojalu as this was the only way to stop the bombardment of Stepanakert from Khojalu and to breake the blockade.[27]

International Reactions[edit]

The United States Congress condemned Azerbaijan's blockade and aggression against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh passing amendment N: 907 to the Freedom Support Act (1992) which banned the US direct support to the government of Azerbaijan. The bill namely stated:

Human rights organisation Christian Solidarity International (CSI) in its report on the Nagorno-Karabakh war concludes that Azerbaijan was the primary aggressor and initiator of the Karabakh war because Azerbaijan 1) organized forcible deportations of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, 2) imposed a blockade on Karabakh and Armenia, 3) used heavy military force and bombarded the civilian areas. The report also states,

Helsinki Watch[edit]

A delegation of members from Helsinki Watch had gone to Stepanakert for two days. Armenians had said that Stepanakert was constantly attacked by Azerbaijanis, starting around 1991, in October. The Helinski Watch members had gone around the city and had observed the widespread damage and photographed many damages to civilian areas. The delegation also noticed that almost every apartment in Stepankerts western side, had been hit by shelling.[9]

Representatives of Helsinki Watch, had photographed the complete destruction of a hospital, and also school buildings in parts of the city.[9]

The Helsinki Watch concluded in their Annual Report that Azerbaijani forces had "pounded the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, Stepanakert, and other Armenian towns and villages with shells and grenades. The indiscriminate shelling and sniper shooting killed or maimed hundreds of civilians, destroyed homes, hospitals and other objects that are not legitimate military targets."[29]

Journalists' accounts[edit]

Vanora Bennett, British reporter,

Stepanakert was in a frenzy of spring-cleaning. In brilliant sunshine, tiny old women were sweeping up rubble and shifting bits of wall. The crunch of broken glass being dragged over broken pavements was the loudest sound. There were ruined buildings on all sides, and almost every house had some trace of war damage, an exposed roof, bullet holes, cracks, staring windows. There were no shops, no gas, no electricity, no phones, no post, and no cash money.[14]

Journalist Vadim Byrkin,

If I have a memory, it is the cold. When you spend the night sleeping in a bomb shelter, in a basement, and when the stove goes out before morning, then it gets terribly cold. In the morning, when you go upstairs, you don't know whether your home will be there or not.[14]

The Montreal Gazette reported,

Yesterday morning, Sukhoi-25 jets raided residential areas of Stepanakert and dropped bombs near an Armenian church, Christ the Savior, in nearby Shusha at the precise moment the divine liturgy was being said.[30]

Anzhelika Chechina, Russian Journalist and Human Rights Activist:

January 21–25 I was in Stepanakert. The city still had no electricity or water. Water is obtained Water is so diffi cult to obtain that drinking tea is disgraceful’. There are no products to trade for food stamps. There are cases of hunger edema in the city. Stepanakert reminds me of documentaries about the Nazi-blockade of Leningrad.[31]

Los Angeles Times reporter John-Thor Dahlburg:

People here are in their third month of life in the catacombs, and some are desperate...

In the besieged wartime capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, life has reverted to Stone Age urgency and precariousness. Take, for example, drinking water, a pressing concern since the Azerbaijanis shut off electricity to pumps that drive the waterworks in this predominantly Armenian city of 70,000... In her underground retreat, Lidia Airepetyan awakened one night because of a stirring by her head. “For three months, we haven’t washed; we have forgotten what a bath is,” said the teacher and mother of three children. She and 36 other families living under their apartment house have no bread since bakeries have shut, so they hull raw wheat and boil it instead. “We basically are surviving off tea,” Airepetyan said. “There are no more noodles, no rice.”[32]

Chicago Tribune reporter Michael McGuire:

The capital, Stepanakert, is under daily artillery bombardment. Not a single home is heated or has electricity, because the blockade has cut off all incoming fuel... Every village has its own defense force because every village is in the war zone.[33]

The UK Daily Telegraph:

Azerbaijan’s air force bombed the capital of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh on Saturday destroying a hostel for refugees and killing at least 10 people, according to media reports. A spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature said two Sukhoi-25 bombers attacked Stepanakert with 1100 pound shells hitting the hostel and killing “dozens” of people.

The ITAR-TASS news agency said civilians were buried in the rubble of their homes and the number of casualties was uncertain.[34]

Russian writer and human rights activist Inessa Burkova:

Azerbaijani artillery was shelling Artsakh from all sides for about two years. They were shelling not the military positions of Karabakh self-defence army but the civilian areas. And from mid February against the townspeople and villagers of Artsakh they used weapons of mass destruction – Grad rocket-launchers, which is a prohibited weapon. Both the international community and the new, democratic leaders of Russia were silent and did not hold Azerbaijan accountable for violating the international law.[35]

Russian journalist Galina Kovalskaya

The Azerbaijani side loses more militarily but the Armenian side evidently has far more losses among the civilian population because the battles take place mainly in the Armenian-populated regions (Armenians are the majority in Karabakh). On top of that, all the Karabakh Armenians are exhausted as a result of militarization of daily life. There is not enough fuel; gas pipeline is constantly blown up, it is cold, and in blockaded towns there is famine…[36]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Witt, Howard (31 May 1992). "Besieged Armenians Live In Daze". Chicago Tribute. Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  2. ^ Taylor & Francis (2004). The Europa World yearbook 2004 (45. ed.). London: Europa. pp. 554–555. ISBN 9781857432541. 
  3. ^ Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia (3rd ed.). London: Europa Publications Limited. 2002. p. 130. ISBN 9781857431377. 
  4. ^ Denber, Rachel (July 1993). Bloodshed in the Caucasus: Indiscriminate Bombing and Shelling by Azerbaijani Forces in Nagorno Karabakh (PDF). Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. pp. 11; 5. 
  5. ^ Human rights and democratization in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, Volume 4; Volume 85. United States. Congress. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. p. 125. 
  6. ^ The Daily Telegraph, Azeri jets bomb capital of enclave - Aug 23, 1992
  7. ^ Bloodshed in the Caucasus: escalation of the armed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. Human Rights Watch, 1992. ISBN 1-56432-081-2, 9781564320810, p. 32
  8. ^ "Human Rights Watch World Report - The Former Soviet Union". Human Rights Watch. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Bloodshed in the Caucasus: escalation of the armed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. 1992, page 12; 34
  10. ^ Report of Memorial Human rights center (In Russian)
  11. ^ Группа Российских Войск в Закавказье (ГРВЗ
  12. ^ Irredentism: ethnic conflict and international politics By Thomas Ambrosio - page 148
  13. ^ Denber, Rachel (July 1993). Bloodshed in the Caucasus: Indiscriminate Bombing and Shelling by Azerbaijani Forces in Nagorno Karabakh (PDF). Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. pp. 11; 5. 
  14. ^ a b c d De Waal, Thomas. Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. p. 175. 
  15. ^ a b Caroline Cox and John Eibner (1993). Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh Zürich; Washington: Institute for Religious Minorities in the Islamic World.
  16. ^ Denber, Rachel (July 1993). Bloodshed in the Caucasus: Indiscriminate Bombing and Shelling by Azerbaijani Forces in Nagorno Karabakh (PDF). Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. p. 11. 
  17. ^ Cox's book of modern saints and martyrs By Caroline Cox, Catherine Butcher - page 100
  18. ^ Azerbaijani State Television, 24, July 1994
  19. ^ Analysis: Council Of Europe Calls For Talks Between Azerbaijan, Karabakh Leadership
  20. ^ Wines, Michael (May 27, 2001). "Trying to Tell a Truce From a War". The New York Times. p. 1.8. Retrieved 2007-03-14. 
  21. ^ Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic By Thomas Goltz -page 184
  22. ^ JPRS report: Central Eurasia. Military affairs: Issue 35; Issue 35 - United States. Foreign Broadcast Information Service - page 23
  23. ^ Conflicts in the OSCE area - Ole Berthelsen, Sven Gunnar Simonsen, International Peace Research Institute, page 12
  24. ^ The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: causes and implications By Michael P. Croissant - page 79
  25. ^ Conflict, Cleavage, and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus By Karen Dawisha, Bruce Parrott - page 82
  26. ^ Armenia: portraits of survival and hope By Donald Earl Miller, Lorna Touryan Miller, Jerry Berndt - page 74
  27. ^ Kaufman, Stuart (2001). Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. New York: Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. pp. 49–66. ISBN 0-8014-8736-6. 
  28. ^ Freedom Support Act (1992) Section 907: Restrictions on the Assistance to Azerbaijan. Public Law 102-511, Washington DC, 24 Oct. 1992
  29. ^ Helsinki Watch (1992). Annual Helsinki Watch report. p. 231. 
  30. ^ The global dynamics of news. Abbas Malek, Anandam P. Kavoori. p. 193. 
  31. ^ ‘Novoe Vremya’ Magazine, Issue 8, 1992 (Russia)
  32. ^ Life Goes Underground in a Capital Under Siege : Nagorno-Karabakh: Frightened citizens find refuge in cramped spaces beneath buildings as battles continue. February 25, 1992 by John-Thor Dahlburg, Los Angeles Times
  33. ^ Armenia, Azerbaijan Battle On. Hopes Slim For Ending Bloody Conflict Over Disputed Area by Michael McGuire, Chicago Tribune. May 31, 1992
  34. ^ The Daily Telegraph, Azeri jets bomb capital of enclave - Aug 23, 1992
  35. ^ Golos Armenii, 21 Sept 1993 Инесса Буркова. Кто же агрессор?
  36. ^ Galina Kovalskaya “Nagorno-Karabakh: there are no righteous, there are the killed” in Novoye Vremya No: 7, Feb 1992

External links[edit]