But Armenian officials quickly denied claims that Shusha had been confiscated.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday that his country’s armed forces had captured Shusha, the second largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Armenian officials immediately denied the request.

If so, it would be a major strategic victory over the region’s ethnic Armenian separatists.

“It is with great pride and great joy that I inform you that the city of Shusha has been liberated,” Aliyev said in a televised address to the nation when Armenian officials reported that the “heavy fighting” for the city was continuing.

Aliyev said November 8th “will go down in the history of the Azerbaijani people” as the day “we returned to Shusha”.

In the capital, Baku, Azeris gathered in large numbers to celebrate, wave flags and chant slogans while drivers sounded their car horns.

The city and surrounding areas have seen fierce fighting in recent days as the Azerbaijani armed forces sought further gains six weeks after new clashes broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The city, called Shushi by Armenians, is of cultural and strategic importance for both sides and is located 15 km south of the largest city in the enclave, Stepanakert.

“Unachievable dream”

At least 1,000 people have died in almost six weeks of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

Shortly before Aliyev’s announcement, the Armenian government said on Twitter that “heavy and determined fighting for Shushi continues” and called the capture of the city “an unattainable pipe dream for Azerbaijan”.

“The most violent fighting took place overnight near Shushi,” said Shushan Stepanyan, spokeswoman for the Armenian Defense Ministry. “Despite severe destruction, the fortress city withstood the blows of the enemy.”

Armenian Defense Ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the battle for the city was not over, adding, “Wait and believe in our army”.

A wounded child is being rushed to hospital after Armenian troops hit downtown Azerbaijan’s Barda last month [Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/ Anadolu]

Bloody fights

Encouraged by Turkish support, Azerbaijan has the upper hand over the bloodiest fighting in the South Caucasus in more than 25 years. In just over a month, it recaptured much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in an earlier war for the territory in the 1990s.

The city could serve as a central base for an Azerbaijani attack on the largest city in the enclave, Stepanakert. Both have been heavily shelled in the last few days. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense said the allegations that it shot at civilian areas were “misinformation”.

Nagorno-Karabakh is in Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of local Armenian forces supported by Armenia since 1994. The most recent outbreak of fighting began on September 27 and has left hundreds – if not thousands – dead.

Aliyev vowed to continue the fighting until Armenia withdrew from the area.

“Our liberation march continues. We will go to the end until the complete liberation of the occupied territories, ”said Aliyev.

The fighting continued despite several attempts by Russia, France and the United States to contribute to a lasting ceasefire. The three countries make up the “Minsk Group” of mediators who signed a ceasefire between their former Soviet rivals in 1994 but failed to find a permanent solution to the long-smoldering conflict.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of targeting civilian areas during the fighting, and the United Nations last week condemned indiscriminate attacks that could amount to “war crimes”.

The fighting has raised fears that both Russia, which has a military alliance with Armenia, and Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey could be further drawn into the conflict.

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