Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday that his country’s forces have taken Shushi, the second-largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“With great pride and joy, I inform you that the town of Shusha has been liberated,” Aliyev said in a nationally televised statement. He added that November 8 would “go down in the history of the Azerbaijani people” as the day “we returned to Shusha,” as the city is called in Azeri.  

Armenian officials immediately denied the claim and said the fighting was ongoing. They reported that “heavy fighting” for the city continues, and called the capture of the town “an unattainable pipe dream for Azerbaijan.”

Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said that, “Over the night, the most ferocious combat has unfolded in the vicinity of Shushi. Despite heavy destruction, the fortress city withstands the blows of the adversary.” She added that Armenian troops had knocked out several tanks and other armored vehicles and killed many Azeri troops in the fighting. 

If indeed the Azeris have captured the important city, it would be a major blow to Armenians.

The city sits on the high ground only about 10 km (six miles) from the region’s capital, Stepanakert. It has been characterized as an “unassailable mountain fortress.” Its strategic importance is exemplified in a century-old Armenian expression that says, “whoever controls the city of Shushi controls the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The city of Shushi has cultural importance for both sides. Prior to the fighting in 1994, the population of the city was mainly Azerbaijani but thousands of them were forced to flee in the violence. The city is also the home of the Holy Saviour Cathedral, an iconic site for the Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenia has accused Azeris of shelling the iconic church. 

There have been unconfirmed reports of Armenians fleeing Shushi.