Armenian forces carried out at least 11 unlawful, indiscriminate rocket and missile strikes during the recent Karabakh war against Azerbaijan, which international courts may hold Yerevan accountable for, a watchdog group recently reported.
As a result of on-site investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), it was determined that Armenia's military conducted illegal attacks on Azerbaijan during the hostilities in September and November.
HRW documented 11 incidents in which Armenian forces used ballistic missiles, unguided artillery rockets and large-caliber artillery projectiles that hit populated areas in apparently random strikes. In at least four other cases, munitions struck civilians or civilian objects in areas where there were no apparent military targets.
The report is based on the HRW’s investigation into Armenia's missile, rocket and artillery attacks that struck cities, towns and villages in Aghdam, Barda, Fuzuli, Ganja, Goranboy, Naftalan and Tartar. The report examined 18 strikes that killed 40 civilians and wounded dozens more through 53 in-person interviews with those who were witnesses to the violence, plus 12 phone interviews and analysis of news reports and governmental data. HRW also reviewed satellite imagery of 10 of the 18 attacks and photos and videos posted on social media from the site of nine of the attacks. This information corroborated the time and date of the strikes and the scale of the destruction. Other attacks will be addressed in future reports, HRW stated.
“Armenian forces repeatedly launched missiles, unguided rockets and heavy artillery into populated cities and villages in violation of the laws of war,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said Saturday.
“Armenian forces fired hugely destructive, inaccurate weapons into Azerbaijan’s cities, towns and villages,” he said.
“Again and again in the course of the six-week war, these attacks unlawfully destroyed civilian lives and homes and should be impartially investigated," Williamson added. “Accountability for these and other apparent violations of the laws of war by both sides is critical if the region is ever going to move beyond this vicious, decades-long conflict.”
In some of the more substantial violence on civilians, Armenian forces used ballistic missiles and rocket artillery that hit residential neighborhoods in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-most populous city – on Oct. 4, 11 and 17 – killing 32 civilians and injuring dozens more. In addition, rocket artillery struck Ganja’s Grand Bazar shopping mall on Oct. 5, reportedly hospitalizing three people, and School Number 4 on Oct. 8, which did not cause any civilian casualties.
HRW previously reported that Armenian attacks on Azerbaijan's Barda on Oct. 28 killed 21 civilians and wounded 70 more. Military strikes hit the city center, setting multiple shops and vehicles on fire. It was the deadliest reported attack on civilians since new fighting over the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region broke out in late September. This followed another assault that killed at least four civilians, including a toddler, in an Armenian missile strike on a village in Barda.
According to the Azerbaijani prosecutor general’s office, 98 civilians were killed and 414 wounded during the armed conflict, and over 3,000 homes and 100 apartment buildings were destroyed or damaged. Azerbaijani government officials told HRW that fighting displaced 40,000 people.
On Nov. 2, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet raised the possibility that war crimes had been committed during the "indiscriminate" attacks against civilian populations.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applicable to the international armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians or attacks that are indiscriminate or cause disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian objects. According to international law, warring parties must take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, including by refraining from deploying in densely populated areas.
Serious violations of the laws of war committed by individuals with criminal intent, deliberately or recklessly, are considered war crimes. Governments have a duty to investigate allegations of war crimes by members of their armed forces or forces on their territory and to fairly prosecute those found responsible.
Relations between the two former Soviet republics have been tense since 1991, when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, and seven adjacent regions.
The conflict that erupted in September between the separatists backed by Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region ended on Nov. 10 with a Moscow-brokered peace deal that saw Yerevan cede swathes of territory to Baku.
Russia has deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the cease-fire deal.
The defense ministry in Moscow said Sunday that the cease-fire was being observed again after reporting it had been violated for the first time a day earlier.
Representatives from France and the U.S., two co-chairs of the Minsk Group – which was set up in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and led talks on the conflict for decades but failed to achieve a lasting agreement – met with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Baku on Saturday.
Aliyev described reports of new fighting as "troubling" and vowed to use an "iron fist" to "crush" Armenian forces completely if fighting erupts again.