Shelling wreaks destruction in small Karabakh town of Martuni


Bursts of artillery rang out Thursday in the small town of Martuni in the separatist Nagorny Karabakh region, where shelling has torn through roofs, leaving piles of rubble and shattered glass.

While the town is around 20 kilometres (15 miles) from the front line of the heavy fighting, Azerbaijan’s armed forces began bombarding central streets and the local government headquarters with Grad rocket launchers as a team of AFP journalists were talking to residents at the scene.

The shelling injured two French journalists from Le Monde newspaper and two Armenian journalists.

Artak Aloyan, a 54-year-old construction worker, had taken shelter in his small dark cellar with his neighbour, an elderly woman in a headscarf who was sitting on an iron bedstead. Since Sunday he has rushed to take refuge here every time rockets start whizzing in.

“I built this house with my own hands. I will not go anywhere, that’s that,” he said.

“I will die here in the last battle,” he said defiantly to the sound of thuds from the nearby town centre as it was bombarded.

His family has taken shelter in Armenia but Aloyan said he was determined to stay on, while noting that the force of the shelling was intensifying.

“What’s just happened, a full-on Grad bombardment, that’s the first time,” he said.

Aloyan was here in the early 1990s during the first war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the mountainous region, which claimed 30,000 lives. 

“Before they would fire and fire and then stay in their positions. Now it’s totally different weaponry, large-calibre,” he said.

Increasingly heavy fighting has been raging since Sunday in the separatist region, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but where most of the population are Armenians, backed by Yerevan.

– ‘This is war’ –

In the centre of Martuni, the onslaught of previous days was clearly visible with collapsed roofs on many houses and shattered windows. Some residents were still sleeping in their houses among shards of broken glass.

“This is war, but we are going to chase them out. They’ll have to raise the white flag to get us to stop,” said Armen, a 52-year-old professional driver, holding up the twisted metal casing of a TOS rocket, which was lying in the backyard of his cousin’s house, which got damaged in the bombardment.

“They’re bombing us all day but we won’t hand over Karabakh. We’ll die but we won’t leave,” he vowed.

 – ‘Barbaric’ –

Periodic bursts of shelling were still ringing out, interspersed with dogs barking and crowing roosters.

Just a few streets away from the local government offices, 72-year-old Mavrik Grigoryan showed the hole in the roof of his house made by a shell, leaving a coating of brown dust over his furniture.

He was in the yard of his house when the shell crashed in. The house’s white-painted facade was pockmarked with holes from the shrapnel. His family had also left for Armenia, but the pensioner said had decided to stay on, like many other residents.

“They’re firing at houses, they’re firing on people. It’s barbaric,” said 38-year-old Karun Abrahamyan, the sales assistant at a grocery store. 

Inside, the shelves were still well-stocked and a truck had arrived with fresh deliveries.

She said that she was keeping the shop open “so there’s no panic” among residents.

“We don’t go anywhere at night. My friend and I stay in the garage. From midnight, we hear the sound of shelling, we don’t know what to do,” she said.

Since the fighting began on Sunday, the two sides have released only partial death tolls, with a total of 135 military and civilians confirmed killed. The real figure will be much higher, as both sides have claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on their opponents.

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia deny initiating the hostilities but declare they will fight to the end, while there are growing fears that other international players will join in the conflict.


PHOTO: A rocket shell found in the Ivanyan community in the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region. AFP

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