Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Azerbaijani forces attacked a church in the town of Shushi during recent fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, in what the group said appeared to be a deliberate targeting in violation of the laws of war.
Armenia accused Azerbaijan of shelling the Holy Savior Cathedral, a historic church perched on a strategic clifftop in Shushi, which is known as Susa in Azeri, on October 8.
Residents of the town said the church, also known as the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, sustained exterior and interior damage after being hit twice within several hours. The 19th-century cathedral is part of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In a statement on December 16, HRW said the two separate attacks “suggest that the church, a civilian object with cultural significance, was an intentional target despite the absence of evidence that it was used for military purposes.”
“The two strikes on the church, the second one while journalists and other civilians had gathered at the site, appear to be deliberate,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks should be impartially investigated and those responsible held to account.”
HRW said weapon remnants collected at the site corroborate the use of guided munitions.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that the church could have been targeted only by mistake and was “not among military targets.”
The attacks took place while Armenian forces still controlled the city. Azerbaijani forces regained control of the city on November 8.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the territory and some surrounding areas have been controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since the early 1990s.
In September, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive that resulted in Baku regaining control of the surrounding districts and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
The sides agreed to a Russia-brokered truce in early November, resulting in in the deployment of 2,000 Russian peacekeeping forces to the conflict zone.
International human rights groups have urged both Azerbaijan and Armenia to urgently conduct investigations into war crimes allegedly committed by both sides during the six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Amnesty International has analyzed 22 videos depicting "extrajudicial executions, the mistreatment of prisoners of war and other captives, and desecration of the dead bodies of enemy soldiers," the London-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on December 10.