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.

On November 7, Witold Repetowicz, a Polish journalist covering the fighting, filmed a huge exodus of civilians trying to get on the road out of the city of Stepanakert. He posted the following to Twitter accompanied by a video: “Thousands of cars were driving from Stepanakert to the mountains. This is the real face of war.”

Hikmet Hajiyev, a senior Azerbaijani presidential advisor was asked by the media how the military was safeguarding civilian lives of the people being displaced by the fighting. 

“Civilians wishing to move to the Azerbaijan-controlled territory will be provided with all kinds of assistance and support based on international principles of humanism,” Hajiyev replied. Hajiyev also called on Armenian civilians to “stay away from the zone of hostilities” and claimed that “the greatest danger to the civilian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan comes from Armenia and its criminal junta regime.”

At least 1,000 people have died in the fighting according to analysts. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently put that number to 5,000.

Russia has ties with and sells arms to both sides, yet, it is closer to Armenia. Turkey, which imports most of its oil from Azerbaijan has been strongly supporting it. The Turks and Israelis have sold drones to Azerbaijan. These have been used to great effect in the fighting. Flushed with money from its oil and natural gas resources Azerbaijan was able to modernize its military following its defeat in the 1994 Armenian-Azerbaijani war. 

On Sunday morning, rumors surfaced that both sides are negotiating a ceasefire whereby Armenia will cede effective control of a large area of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. According to the rumored ceasefire, a joint force of Russian and Turkish troops will conduct peace-keeping missions in the area. 

The disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is considered to be part of Azerbaijan; yet, it has been ruled by ethnic Armenians, backed by the Armenian government for the past 25 years following the last war. The mountainous terrain in Nagorno-Karabakh is rich with oil and natural gas.