Nagorno-Karabakh volunteers get weapons as clashes intensify

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Local residents hold Kalashnikov guns that they received from a recruitment office in the town of Martuni, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is escalating, with both sides exchanging accusations and claims of attacks over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Heavy fighting is in a third week despite a cease-fire deal. (AP Photo)

MARTUNI, Nagorno-As the fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces rages on in the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, its residents are joining volunteer squads to defend their towns.

The Ovanisyan family and their neighbors were called Wednesday to receive their Kalashnikov rifles to help protect Martuni, a town close to the front line in the eastern part of the region.

“I was summoned to the recruitment office to give me a gun so I can defend my land. I am always ready to fight for the well-being of my children," said Valery Ovanisyan, a 64-year-old Martuni resident.

His 41-year-old relative Edik, who owns a shop, admitted he has never loaded a gun before.

“I’m doing this nonsense for the first time in my life,” he said while inserting cartridges into the magazine.

Overhearing him, Karen Musaelyan, quickly retorted: “This is not nonsense! This is our bread!”

The recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on Sept. 27 and has since killed hundreds. It marked the biggest escalation of a decades-old conflict over the region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia.

The violence — involving heavy artillery, rockets and drones — has continued to rage despite Russia's attempt to broker a truce.

Russia, which has a security pact with Armenia but also has cultivated warm ties with Azerbaijan, hosted top diplomats from Armenia and Azerbaijan for more than 10 hours of talks that ended with Saturday’s cease-fire deal. But the agreement immediately frayed, with both sides blaming each other for breaching it.

On Thursday, Azerbaijan again accused Armenian forces of shelling several of its regions and claimed that one of the strikes hit a cemetery, killing three people. The claim was immediately supported by Turkey, which has publicly sided with Azerbaijan in the conflict.

“Armenia continues to disregard the humanitarian cease-fire announced on Oct. 10 for the exchange of prisoners and victims," Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that the country's forces "do not even allow our Azerbaijani brothers to bury their dead.”

Armenian authorities, in turn, said Azerbaijan had breached the truce, alleging that its forces killed two people in an attack on its territory on Wednesday. Nagorno-Karabakh officials also reported new strikes on Stepanakert, the territory's capital, that came under intense shelling last week.

In Martuni, houses and buildings have been badly damaged by the shelling.

The family of Benik Osepyan, 91, combed the rubble of their home, picking up things spared by the strike.

Martuni residents got their Kalashnikovs a day after Nagorno-Karabakh’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, announced regulations on the “participation of the militia forces” in the fighting.

On Thursday, he also introduced travel restrictions for those who are eligible for the draft, allowing them to leave the region only under special circumstances and with a permit from the authorities.

Valery Ovanisyan said his grandchildren have departed for Armenia, but he was staying behind for their sake,

“They are small, 3 years and 5 years. They shouldn’t be here. I’m here, holding ground (to protect) them,” he said.