Armed Conflict: 1991-1994
From the beginning of 1991, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenian populations of both the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and the Shahoumian region. On January 2, the Azerbaijani television broadcast the President of Azerbaijan, Ajaz Mutalibov's edict on the introduction of a presidential government in NKAO and the adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Leaflets were distributed in the region with an ultimatum demanding the Armenian people to leave the boundaries of Nagorno Karabakh at the earliest possible date.
On January 14, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet Presidium made a decision to unify two neighboring regions, the Armenian-populated Shahoumian and Azerbaijani-populated Kasum-Ismailov, into one region named Geranboy. The aim of the Azerbaijani leadership was obvious: to liquidate an Armenian-populated region, deporting its indigenous inhabitants and repopulating the Armenian villages with Azeris. At this time, the Shahoumian region had twenty thousand inhabitants, 82% of whom were Armenians.
On January 22, at Stepanakert Airport OMON, the Special militia detachments of Azerbaijan prevented a group of Deputies from the R.S.F.S.R. Supreme Soviet, who had arrived from Baku on a mission to study the situation, from entering town.
The situation in Nagorno Karabakh and adjacent Armenian region became seriously aggravated. Operation Ring was one event in particular that caused severe deterioration in the region. This punitive act against the Armenians in late April and early May of 1991 involved forces of the USSR Ministry of the Interior and the Azerbaijani OMON. On the pretext of passport "checks", an unprecedented action of state terror was carried out with the aim of destroying the center of the Karabakh movement and destroying national unity. The first victims were the villagers of Getashen and Martounashen of the Khanlar region in Azerbaijan. The male population was deported to unknown locations, while brutality, looting, and robbery accompanied further "passport checks". During three days, the population of twenty-four Karabakh villages was subjected to similar treatment and deportation. Two of the villages were in the Khanlar district, three in the Shahoumian district, fifteen in the Hadrout district, and four in the Shoushi district. As a result of these actions in Karabakh, more than one hundred people were killed and several hundred more were taken as hostages.
On April 24, the Armenian Supreme Soviet Chairman sent a letter to the USSR leadership requesting that urgent measures be taken to protect and ensure the security of the Armenian people. On May 3rd, active members of the Armenian Communist Party addressed the President of the USSR, M.Gorbachev, with a similar request. On May 4th, the President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian met with M.Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. No statement was issued following the meeting. The USSR interior forces with the Azerbaijani OMON - continued their punitive operations. It was evident that a large-scale war was brewing.
On May 6, the USSR Supreme Soviet discussed Armenia's request to convene the congress of the USSR People's Deputies to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation within the region. A decision to continue discussion of the situation at the Commission of the Soviet of Nationalities of the USSR Supreme Soviet was decided upon.
Meanwhile, 700 Armenian refugees were taken from Getashen to Stepanakert by military helicopters. A rally, scheduled by public organizations in Stepanakert on May 7, was banned by the military commandant's office. Crowds were warned by armored troops carrying loudspeakers, that arms would be used in the case of disobedience.
As a result of the critical situation in Nagorno Karabakh, the Executive Committee of the Regional Soviet (Council) declared a state of emergency in the region. On the same day, the Executive Committee appealed to the UN and to other leaders of a number of states to save the Armenian people from the physical extermination by granting them political asylum.
On July 19, 1991 the enlarged session of the Executive Committee of the Regional Soviet discussed measures on the political and economic stabilization of the situation. A decision to restore the authorities of the NKAO People's Deputies Soviet, hold new elections of the Regional Soviet, develop a survival program for Artsakh, and prepare for armed resistance against Azerbaijan were all made. A representative delegation was created in order to hold negotiations with the Azerbaijani leadership. As a result of negotiations in Baku, temporary peace was established.
On June 24, the NKAO delegation left for Moscow to meet with the Soviet leadership to discuss the issue of restoration of the regional bodies of power and possible dialogue with Azerbaijani authorities on the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh situation. On June 29, the USSR Vice-President, G.Yanaev, approved the initiative and promised to promote the dialogue and peaceful resolution of the Karabakh problem. The efforts of the NKAO delegation to meet the USSR President M. Gorbachev failed. The NKAO representatives were received by the Supreme Soviet Chairman, A.Lukyanov, who expressed the necessity of restoring the Supreme Soviet Chairman, Lukyanov, expressed the necessity of restoring the Regional Soviet of People's Deputies, and promised to send a Supreme Soviet delegation to Nagorno Karabakh to study the situation. Meetings were also held with the USSR Defense Ministry D.Yazov, Internal Affairs Minister B.Pugou, Deputy Prosecutor General Trubin, and the former USSR Foreign Minister E.Shevardnadze. All talks yielded little in terms of practical results.
Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani leadership continued its policy of Armenian deportations under the false guise of "voluntary departures." These actions were accompanied with such atrocities as torture, murder, looting, banditry, brutality and extreme violence.
On July 19, a session of the Nagorno Karabakh Regional Soviet of People's Deputies discussed the possibility of dialogue with Azerbaijan on developing a peaceful settlement to the conflict. On July 20, the NKAO delegation held a meeting with President of Azerbaijan, but no concrete results were achieved.
The turning point of the national-liberation movement of the Karabakh people was the creation of statehood, thus ensuring the security of the population and their territory.
On September 2, a Joint Session of the Nagorno Karabakh Regional Council and the Council of the Shahoumian region was held. In light of the wishes of all peoples residing within the boundaries of Nagorno Karabakh and the Shahoumian Region, a Republic of Nagorno Karabakh was proclaimed. Almost immediately followed the Azerbaijani retaliation as Stepanakert was bombarded and shelled with 'Alazan' rockets.
On September 22, Presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan, B.Yeltsin and N.Nazarbaev, accompanied by A.Mutalibov arrived in Stepanakert on a peacemaking mission. At the request of B. Yeltsin and N.Nazarbaev, negotiations were held in Zheleznovodsk between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Nagorno Karabakh delegations on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement, and as a result, the parties adopted a Joint Communiqué on September 23rd.
Yeltsin and Nazarbaev's mediation initiative unfortunately did not result in any improvement of the situation in Nagorno Karabakh. On the contrary, Azeris rapidly escalated offensives, shelling, and attacks on the Armenian areas.
On October 15, representatives of the Presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan arrived in Baku to begin the implementation of the Zheleznovodsk agreement. The President of Azerbaijan received the delegation, even though he repeatedly stated that only Azerbaijan was competent to resolve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and all outside agencies must not intervene in Azerbaijan's internal affairs.
Meanwhile, in Baku anti-Armenian riots were organized by the Azerbaijani Popular Front demanding the creation of a regular army to capture Karabakh.
Soon after, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet adopted a bill on the dissolution of Nagorno Karabakh as a national-territorial entity, and the Nagorno Karabakh districts were renamed and subordinated to newly created administrative centers. On November 28, a resolution from the USSR Committee of Constitutional Supervision condemned the Azerbaijani legislative body for violating the status of NKAO.
The most important turn of events in the national liberation struggle of the Karabakh people was the all-republican referendum, held on December 10, 1991. 98% of the participants of the referendum voted for the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. On December 28, despite constant bombardment by the Azerbaijani Army, parliamentary elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic were held in the NKR. On January 6, 1992, the newly elected legislative body of the NKR adopted the Declaration of the NKR Independence and appealed to the UN and to all the countries of the world to recognize the NKR and help prevent the genocide of the Artsakh Armenians. The next day the session elected the chairman of the NKR Supreme Council, thirty-year old Arthur Mkrtchian. Oleg Yessayan was appointed as Chairman of the Council of Ministers (The NKR Government).
Taking advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan proceeded to escalate wide-scaled military offensives against Nagorno Karabakh. The Azeri-populated villages, surrounding Stepanakert, were turned into military bases from which the capital of the republic was destroyed by artillery shelling. Forty barreled missile rockets called "Grads" were launched. "Grads" are considered a weapon of mass destruction when used against civilian populations and their usage is forbidden by numerous international conventions. In addition to bombing in Stepanakert, the Azerbaijanis shelled the Shahoumian district, killing many children and women.
Late in 1991, the units of the former 4th Army (of USSR) were ordered to withdraw from Karabakh. The republic now stood alone, face to face with Azerbaijani regular forces equipped with modern military equipment, arms, and aircraft piloted by foreign mercenaries. Early in 1992, the arsenal of the Azeri armed forces was increased considerably when warehouses of the Transcaucasian military region of former Soviet Army were captured. The warehouse stocked thousands of carriages of ammunition that, as military experts asserted, would be enough for on intensive military offensive lasting at least a year.
The beginning of 1992 was marked by Azerbaijani incursions into the territory of Agdam and the attack on the Armenian village of Khramort, which was subsequently burnt to the ground. The NKR capital and various Armenian villages were under constant intensive shelling. On January 25-26, an Azerbaijani army battalion attacked the Karintak village of the Shoushi district. The Azerbaijani forces were beaten back after two days' of fierce fighting. On January 31, Azerbaijan began an offensive along the entire front-line.
The escalating military offensives operations compelled the NKR to organize their own defense. Voluntary groups of freedom fighters were established throughout Artsakh. Headquarters of these self-defense forces were established in order to coordinate military operations. This became the foundation that paved the way for creating a regular army.
On the night of January 21-22, the headquarters
of the Azerbaijani OMON, located in the Kerkjan quarter (former Karkarashen)
of the town of Stepanakert, was destroyed. Soon after, the villages
of Malibeyli and Ghushchilar, adjacent to the NKR capital, were destroyed.
On February 25, the Artsakh self-defense forces, taking up positions in western Khodjaly, demanded that the enemies leave the military base and allow civilians through the established humanitarian corridor.
The president of Azerbaijan, A.Mutalibov, confessed that, "the corridor was established by the Armenians to let the civilian inhabitants through" (the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 2, 1992). Nevertheless, the Azeri military, using the villagers as a shield, resumed bombarding of populated areas in NKR. When villagers were compelled to abandon their homes, Azeri forces shot the civilian columns as they approached Agdam borders. A.Mutalibov believed this unprecedented criminal act was linked to the Azerbaijani Opposition Popular Front's efforts to remove him from office, thus placing the entire massacre on his shoulders.
Early in March, the Azeri army undertook a wide-scaled offensive that involved the entire front line. The main blow was aimed at the Martakert, Askeran and Martouni districts. As a result of fierce battles, the offensive was halted. Even with the liquidation of the Khodjaly military base, the shelling did not subside. The Azeris positioned themselves in the town of Shoushi and carried out sustained rocket-artillery bombardment of the NKR capital and other populated areas. On May 7, the Azeri infantry and armor backed with ME-24 military helicopters attacked the Karabakh defense positions in the southeast of Stepanakert. Simultaneously, from the Shoushi hills and adjacent Azerbaijani points 200 Grad rockets and weapons were launched onto the capital, causing many casualties and devastating destruction. Fires broke raged throughout the railway station and in apartment buildings throughout the town.
The command self-defense forces decided to neutralize the strongholds of the enemy. In the morning of May 8, the Artsakh self-defense subunits assumed a counter-offensive, taking the Shoushi-Lachin road under their control. By noon, the Azeri defense of Shoushi from the north and south had been broken. As a result of fierce street battles, the Armenian troops occupied the central quarters of the town by evening. On May 9, Shoushi was liberated entirely. After destroying the firing points in Shoushi, the self-defense forces next mission was to open the important road of Shoushi-Lachin-Zabukh, remove the blockade, and restore normal daily activity in the republic. On May 18, the Karabakh army entered Lachin (Kashatagh), thus ending the 3-year blockade. On May 20, hundreds of tons of humanitarian goods - food, medicines, and other top priority materials were delivered to Stepanakert via the Goris-Stepankert Road through the Lachin Corridor. After the Shoushi-Lachin operation, the tension in the conflict area was reduced considerably.
Meanwhile, the Azeri military was preparing for a new wide-scaled military operation. On June 12, the Azerbaijani troops waged an offensive in the northern-eastern, eastern and southeastern sectors of the front. The entire weight of the Azerbaijan military was directed against a 20 kilometers theatre of operations. In addition, the forces of former 4-th Army stationed in NKR were engaged. With the help of armor equipment, Grad multiple-missile rocket launchers, and aircraft, the enemy was able to capture the entire Shahoumian district, and parts of Martakert and Askeran districts. As a result of the offensive, the Azerbaijani national army destroyed and burned scores of villages, forcing forty thousand inhabitants of the republic into refugee status. Taking into account the dire situation, the NKR Supreme Soviet announced that the republic was in a state of emergency. The population, including sergeants, reserves, conscripts from the ages 18 to 40, officers up to 50 years old, and women, were all mobilized and given special training.
In the first days of June, the Azerbaijani army, expanding its offensive in several directions, occupied the regional center of Martakert and a number of villages in the region. A large threat hung over Artsakh as 40% of the territory was officially occupied by Azerbaijani troops.
On August 11, the President of Azerbaijan issued a decree on conscription for military service of all those demobilized from the army in 1991-1992, as well as a prolongation of tenure for those currently serving in the armed forces. With the aim of preventing further loss of territories to Azerbaijan, the NKR Supreme Soviet Presidium adopted an edict placing the republic on the alert for declared war. On August 15, the State Committee of Defense was established and was granted absolute executive and legislative powers. The State Committee of Defense Chairman, Robert Kocharian, mobilized all the manpower and material resources of the republic, and prepared enterprises, establishments, and organizations for war. Kocharian's next priority was the unification of all autonomous self-defense forces into a united army under a single commander.
Meanwhile, heavy battles continued in different areas of the front. The Azerbaijani air force continued attacking civilian targets. On August 18, pellet bombs were dropped on Stepanakert even though the use of such weapons was forbidden by international law. The following days, the villages of the Martouni, Martakert and Askeran districts came under aerial bombardment.
By late summer, Martakert remained an extremely tense position in the front. On August 26, at the expense of great losses, the enemy succeeded in taking the strategic Martakert-Kelbajar highway.
During the last days of October, the Azerbaijani troops made two attempts to cut off the Lachin humanitarian corridor, but were fortunately stopped 12 kilometers away and were thrown back. On October 19, the Karabakh forces started a counter- offensive to the south of the corridor and proceeded until they reached the borders of the Kubatly district.
On November 1992, due to the NKR Army's counter- offensive efforts, the Tartar-Martakert-Kelbajar highway under its control. Fierce month-long fighting ensued along the entire length of the Martakert front. The end of 1992 was marked by the abatement of hostilities along the entire length of the front.
Early in January, the military offensives along the length of the Azerbaijani-Karabakh front resumed again. Azerbaijan engaged almost the entirety of its arsenal attacking with aircraft, heavy tanks, various weapons, and infantry.
On January 14, the Azeri troops embarked on an extended offensive in the direction of the Kichan and Srkhavand villages of the Martakert district, and the Chartar village in the Martouni district. However, the Azeri forces were not able to advance in these areas.
In early February, heavy fighting began at the northern front. The commander of the NKR Self-defense Army issued a decision to undertake a counter offensive operation in the Martakert district, in the hopes of freeing the occupied territory. Breaking the resistance of the enemy army in a few days, the Karabakhi forces advanced to the strategic Martakert-Kelbajar road. By late February, the Karabakh forces succeeded in re-establishing full control of the road and of the Sarsang storage lake where the vital electrical power station was located.
From March 27 - April 5, operations to remove the military bases in the Kelbajar district, which presented a serious threat to the western borders of NKR, was undertaken. On April 3, the firing points in Kelbajar were neutralized. Having taken the road linking Kelbajar with Kirovabad, the Karabakh forces advanced to the Omar Pass. During the second half of April, the situation on the front was relatively quiet.
However, late in spring, the situation abruptly changed. The enemy resumed military operations along the entire length of the front, concentrating forces at the eastern, Martouni area. All attempts to break through the defenses of the Karabakhi troops failed.
At the beginning of the summer, the Defense Army Command prepared a plan for the liberation of Martakert which required undertaking several offensives in various directions simultaneously. The battles reached a climax on June 27 when the decisive and coordinated actions of the army yielded the liberation of Martakert after more than one year of occupation.
On July 4, the Azerbaijani army began a large-scale offensive in the Askeran, Hadrout and Martakert regions supported by air power and armor engineering. In all regions, the enemy was rejected and retreated. Shelly, a village that was used by the Azeri's to mount artillery shelling onto Askeran and Stepanakert, finally came under control of the Karabakh forces. Even so, the capital of the NKR continued to be barraged from the direction of Agdam, where great numbers of long-range weapons and "Grad" launchers were located. To ensure the safety of Stepanakert, the Artsakh armed forces moved to liquidate the military base of Agdam. On July 23, the Karabakh forces broke down the enemy resistance and entered Agdam. This removed the threat of systematic shelling of Stepanakert and the threat of further offensives on Askeran and contiguous districts.
With the loss of their large military base, the Azerbaijani leadership was compelled to propose a cease-fire. On July 25, for the first time during the conflict, an arrangement for a three-day cease-fire armistice was achieved.
However, in the beginning of August the situation rapidly changed. Sustained attacks on Karabakhi positions resumed and were concentrated from the direction of Jebrail. Thanks to skillful actions of the self-defense forces, a number of enemy military bases were destroyed. On August 16, from the Azerbaijani town of Fizuly, an offensive was assumed towards the southern borders of the Martouni district and the eastern borders of the Hadrout district. The military units of the NKR Defense Army defended their positions, and liberated a number of occupied villages in the south of the Hadrout district.
In the second half of August, fierce fighting took place along the Fizuly-Jebrail-Kubatly line. On the 22nd of August, the Azeri troops were forced to leave the town and district of Fizuly. In two days, the Karabakhi troops entered the district center Djebrail and took the territory under their control.
On August 26, the Hadrout district territory of the NKR was entirely liberated. On August 29, the Azeri side made an attempt to break through the Karabakhi defensive positions in the southern regions of the Lachin Humanitarian Corridor, but the NKR army embarked on a counter-offensive, and on August 31 entered the district center of Kubatly. The same day, an agreement on a 10-day cease-fire was signed between Azerbaijan and the NKR. An arrangement for a meeting between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh was scheduled for the 10th of September.
However, the agreement did not effectively transfer the resolution of the military conflict into a political one. The relative quiet along the front lasted merely a month and a half. On the night of the October 10, Azerbaijan resumed military operations in the Hadrout region of the front. On October 21, units from the Azerbaijani Army began an attack towards the Hadrout-Jebrail direction, capturing a number of strategic hills and once again threatening the population of the Hadrout region. On October 24, the NKR Army counter-attacked, neutralizing a number of firing points of the enemy, including the Ghoradis military base. Having taken this military base, the Karabakhi forces succeeded in isolating the Zangelan district, a part of the Jebrail and the Kubatly districts, from the rest of Azerbaijan.
In the morning of November 1, the fighters of the Self-defense Army took the district center of Zangelan. Starting on December 10, the Azerbaijani army launched three offensives in the southeastern sector of the front, but each time the Karabakh army was able to stand their ground. On December 15, the military bases in the Agdjabedy district of Azerbaijan began massive rocket-artillery shelling of the town of Martouni. On December 19, supported by tanks and airpower, the Azerbaijani troops attacked the positions of the Karabakhi army in the east of the Martouni district. The NKR armed forces were able to stop the offensive and in the evening of December 20 they were able to drive the enemy back to their initial positions. On December 22, the positions held by the Karabakhi troops were subjected to artillery shelling. The enemy unsuccessfully tried to break the defensive borders of the Karabakhi forces along the front-line, extending some 30 kilometers. On December 26, the Azerbaijani troops waged battles in the Martakert, Martouni and Hadrout regions, but they did not succeeded in advancing. By the end of 1993, territory stretching from the railway junction of Ghoradis to the state border of Armenia was under Karabakhi control.
The leadership of Azerbaijan, realizing that the mobilization of their own troops was not sufficient, began employing mercenaries, including about 1,500 Mojahedeens from Afghanistan. Personal papers, military maps, letters and photos, national currency confirmed participation of the mercenaries in the war, and captured men of the Karabakhi military used as trophies.
Azerbaijan attempted once again to gain control of the situation, intensifying their attacks on the entire front-line. Heavy fighting was waged from the Omar Pass to the Araks River. In spite of serious losses, the enemy did not retreat. In early February the NKR troops started liquidating the enemy's bases around the Omar Pass. On February 18, the northern sector, including the Omar Pass, was entirely controlled by the Karabakhi forces, thus they came to control the entire Kelbajar district.
In late February and early March, fighting developed along the southeastern border of the front. Backed by armored forces, artillery, and aircraft, the enemy's troops attempted to break through the Karabakhi defense and advance to Fizuly. However, the Karabakh forces were defended its positions and assumed a series of their own attacks.
On April 10, as a result of counter offensives in the northern-eastern front, the NKR armed forces took a number of strategic hills in the Gulistan- Talish region. In the middle of April, the NKR Defense Army liberated the Armenian villages of Talish, Chily, Madagis, and Levonarkh. The Karabakh troops were also successful in their movement south and managed to bring the main road in Agdam-Barda under their control.
These decisive military defeats compelled Azerbaijan to accept the Russian Federation's proposal on armistice. On May 5, under the mediation of Russia, Kyrgyzia, and the CIS Inter-Parliament Assembly in the capital of Kyrgyzia, Bishkek, - Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenia signed the Bishkek protocol and a cease-fire was achieved. On May 16, Defense Minister of Armenia, Serzh Sarkissian, Defense Minister of Azerbaijan, Mamedraffi Mamedov, and the NKR Defense Army Commander, Samvel Babayan, held a meeting in Moscow and signed a cease-fire agreement to begin on May 17, 1994. Documents were signed called for the disengagement of the Karabakh and Azerbaijani troops, and the establishment of a buffer zone between the borders and deployment of peacekeeping forces. Defense Ministers of the Russian Federation and Armenia, Pavel Grachev and Serge Sarkissian, and the NKR Defense Army Commander signed the document. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan did not sign the final version of the Moscow agreement (the Azerbaijani Defense Minister Mamedraffi Mamedov was urgently called to Baku), a durable cease-fire was established in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
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The authorities of Nagorno Karabakh realize
that when confrontation between two armed sides continues even under
the conditions of an armistice, the army is the only trustworthy guarantee
for the protection of the people and statehood. This is why today, fundamental
staff reforms aimed at improving combat readiness are being implemented
under guidance from NKR Defense Minister Lieutenant-General, Seyran
Ohanian. The material-technical base of the army is improving and personnel
training are being conducted. As before, the NKR Defense Army is ready
and willing to throwback any further aggression from Azerbaijan.