YEREVAN/BAKU -- Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of shelling a historic cathedral in territory controlled by ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh as fighting over the breakaway Azerbaijani region continues to rage.
Residents of the town of Shushi (known as Susa in Azeri) said that the Holy Savior Cathedral sustained exterior and interior damage after being hit twice within several hours.
An RFE/RL correspondent reported that women and children were inside the cathedral at the time of the first shelling, but nobody was wounded.
Three Russian journalists were reportedly wounded in the second attack. One of them was said to be hospitalized in critical condition and undergoing surgery.
Also known as the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, the 19th-century building is part of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is perched on a strategic cliff top in Shushi just a few kilometers south of Stepanakert -- Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry denied attacking the cathedral, saying its army "doesn't target historical, cultural, especially religious buildings and monuments."
Earlier on October 8, Baku said Armenian forces had attacked several Azerbaijani towns and villages overnight, causing casualties.
The Defense Ministry in Baku said on its website that Azerbaijani forces were "taking adequate measures," without elaborating.
Armenia's Defense Ministry reported earlier in the day that the Armenian-backed separatist forces had repelled an attack to the southeast of Stepanakert and Shushi, killing Azerbaijani soldiers and destroying military equipment.
The latest clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on September 27. The fighting, which has involved the use of heavy artillery, warplanes, and drones, has continued despite numerous international calls for a cease-fire.
The fighting marks the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict since a shaky cease-fire was reached in 1994.
Yerevan and Baku accuse each other of expanding the hostilities beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and of targeting civilians. Scores of civilians on both sides have been killed.
Nagorno-Karabakh's military says 350 of its soldiers have been killed since September 27. Azerbaijan, which is backed by Turkey, hasn't provided details about its military losses.
Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan. But it has been under the control of Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian forces since the 1994 cease-fire brought an end to the separatist war that broke out during the late 1980s.
Earlier on October 8, before reports emerged about the shelling of the cathedral in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto leadership said its forces were "suppressing the activity" of Azerbaijani forces along the front lines to the southeast of Stepanakert.
Stepanakert has been under intense shelling for days, forcing residents to stay in shelters and in the basements of apartment buildings.
Armenian officials allege that Turkey's involvement in the conflict includes sending Syrian mercenaries to fight on Azerbaijan's side. Although Turkey has publicly backed Azerbaijan, Ankara denies sending fighters to the region.
Russia, the United States, and France co-chair the so-called Minsk Group, which was set up in the 1990s under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate the conflict. They have called repeatedly for stopping hostilities and starting peace talks.
The Minsk Group was scheduled to meet on October 8 in Geneva with Azerbaijan’s foreign minister expected to attend and present Baku’s position on the conflict.
Azerbaijan has said previously that the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the region is Baku's main condition for a cease-fire.
Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives were not expected to meet at the Minsk Group gathering in Geneva.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on October 7 that Russian, French, and U.S. representatives would meet in Moscow on October 12 to find a way to get the warring sides to negotiate a cease-fire.
"We want everyone to understand that it's in their interest to immediately stop hostilities without conditions and that we start a negotiation," he told the French parliament's foreign affairs committee.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized the Minsk Group for failing to resolve the issue. On October 8, he reiterated his country's full support for Azerbaijan, saying Baku is determined to reclaim its territory.
"The Minsk Group until now has not shown any will to solve this problem," Erdogan told economic forum in Istanbul via video link an October 8. "The solution to the issue -- which has turned into gangrene, so to speak, because of Armenia’s uncompromising and spoiled attitude for years -- is for the occupation to end."