Missile Strike Kills 21 Civilians In Azerbaijani Town As Violence Escalates In Nagorno-Karabakh

(Photo by TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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A missile strike against the Azerbaijani town of Barda has killed at least 21 civilians, according to new reports. 

Azerbaijan has accused the Armenian military of launching the strike as violence escalates in the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the BBC reports. Dozens more were wounded in the town in central Azerbaijan, which is close to the fighting but not actually within the disputed territory, according to the BBC. 

Hikmet Hajiyev, a spokesman for the Azeri President, accused Armenian forces of using “cluster munitions to inflict excessive casualties among civilians”, per the BBC. Armenia has denied carrying out the strike. A statement from Nagorno-Karabakh officials instead accused Azeri forces of striking a maternity hospital and other civilian infrastructure in the city of Stepanakert. (RELATED: New Charlie Hebdo Cartoon Mocking Erdogan Draws Intense Backlash From Turkish Leaders)

Nagorno-Karabakh is run autonomously by ethnic Armenians but it is internationally recognized as Azeri territory. The latest fighting in the decades-long dispute, which began in late September, has now claimed over one thousand lives, according to the BBC. As of two days ago, Azeri officials were reporting a total of 65 civilian casualties across the entire month-long conflict and Nagorno-Karabakh was reporting only 30 such deaths, meaning the Barda missile attack represents a significant escalation in violence towards civilians outside the disputed territory. 

The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry said the attack was a gross violation of international law, per the BBC. More international attention has been drawn to the violence in recent days as the United States has attempted to take on a bigger role in mediating. 

Leaders from the two countries met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week and reached a ceasefire agreement that was promptly violated less than 24-hours later. More talks are slated to happen Thursday in Geneva with the Minsk Group, a watchdog group co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States. Turkey, who backs the Azeris, has rejected calls for peace and says the Minsk group isn’t equipped to negotiate a peaceful resolution.