The Khojaly Massacre was the killing of hundreds of ethnic Azerbaijani civilians from the town of Khojaly on 25–26 February 1992 by the Armenian and Russian armed forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. According to the Azerbaijani side, as well as Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers, the massacre was committed by the ethnic Armenian armed forces, reportedly with help of the Russian 366th Motor Rifle Regiment, apparently not acting on orders from the command.The official death toll provided by Azerbaijani authorities is 613 civilians, including 106 women and 83 children. The event became the largest massacre in the course of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Western governments and the western media refer to it as the Khojaly Massacre or Khojaly Tragedy. While Armenian sources usually underestimate the massacre and mostly refers to it as the Battle of Khojaly (Armenian: Խոջալուի պատերազմում-Khojalui Paterazmum), Khojaly event (Armenian: Խոջալուի իրադարձություն-Khojalui Iradardzut’yun) or sometimes Khojaly tragedy (Armenian: Խոջալուի ողբերգության-Khojalui Voghbergut’yan). Azeri and Turkish sources on the other hand call it massacre or Khojaly Genocide (Azerbaijani: Xocalı soyqırımı, Turkish: Hocalı soykırımı) and the Khojaly Tragedy (Azerbaijani: Xocalı faciəsi) According to Human Rights Watch, the tragedy struck when “a large column of residents, accompanied by a few dozen retreating fighters, fled the city as it fell to Armenian forces. As they approached the border with Azerbaijan, they came across an Armenian military post and were cruelly fired upon”.
Armenian side officially claims that the killings occurred as a result of wartime military operations, and were in part caused by the prevention of the evacuation of town inhabitants by Azerbaijani forces. Armenian government officials asserted that the casualty count, though high, was due to the fact the fleeing civilians in Khojaly had mingled with the retreating defenders and when the Azeri troops shot back, Armenian forces fired upon them, killing both soldier and civilian alike. Helsinki Watch itself concluded “that the militia, still in uniform, and some still carrying their guns, were interspersed with the masses of civilians.” However, Human Rights Watch and Memorial, found this explanation of Armenian officials unconvincing, stating that the killing of civilians could not be justified under any circumstances. Human Rights Watch noted that “the attacking party [i.e., Karabakh Armenian forces] is still obliged to take precautionary measures to avoid or minimize civilian casualties. In particular, the party must suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the attack may be expected to cause civilian casualties that are excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
The Armenian side refers to Ayaz Mutalibov’s interview to claim that the massacre had been committed not by Armenian soldiers but by Azerbaijan Popular Front militants who allegedly shot their own civilians escaping through the corridor. In one of his interviews Mutalibov stated that the event could be a ploy by opposition to denigrate his government. In later interviews, however, Mutalibov would go on to condemn the Armenians for what he said was a blatant misinterpretation of his words. Other theories proposed by the Armenian side were that Azeri Popular Front soldiers had massacred 100 Azeri and Armenian civilians and then proceeded to mix the bodies and lay blame upon the Armenians.
This explanation however is widely disputed, among others, the executive director of Human Rights Watch has stated that: “we place direct responsibility for the civilian deaths with Karabakh Armenian forces. Indeed, neither our report nor that of Memorial includes any evidence to support the argument that Azerbaijani forces obstructed the flight of, or fired on Azeri civilians”.
At the same time, some Armenian sources admitted the guilt of the Armenian side. According to Markar Melkonian, the brother of the Armenian military leader Monte Melkonian, “Khojaly had been a strategic goal, but it had also been an act of revenge.” The date of the massacre in Khojaly had a special significance: it was the run-up to the fourth anniversary of the anti-Armenian pogrom in the city of Sumgait. Melkonian particularly mentions the role of the fighters of two Armenian military detachments called the Arabo and Aramo, who stabbed to death many Azeri civilians.
According to Serge Sarkisian, long-time Defense Minister and Chairman of Security Council of Armenia who is the current president of Armenia, “A lot was exaggerated” in the casualties, and the fleeing Azerbaijanis had put up armed resistance. At the same time he stated: “Before Khojali, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype]. And that’s what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from Baku and Sumgait”.
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