In the January of 1990, hundreds of Armenians in Baku fell victims in the barbaric pogroms, inspired by the extremists from the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. Many of the Armenians, young and old alike were burned alive in their homes, while others were shot after being raped and tortured. Those survived were herded to the harbor, embarked to the ferry and deported to the Turkmen port of Krasnovodsk. The extremely nationalistic Popular Front in fact seized the power in Azerbaijan, making "Kill the Armenian" and "Cleanse Karabakh of the Armenians" their main banners.
Soon thereafter, the armed confrontation began in the Armenian populated Shahumian and Khanlar regions, and along the Armenian-Azeri border. In October of 1990, the Azeri militia blockaded the airport in Stepanakert suburb of Hodjallu, which definitely isolated Artsakh from Armenia.
In April 1991, the special Azeri and Soviet militia detachment forces began the so-called "Circle" operation. First, the population of the Armenian Guetashen and Martunashen villages of Khanlar region was forcibly deported, then the punitive raids continued in the Shahumian, Hadrout and Shushi regions. These purely terrorist actions conducted by Azerbaijani and Soviet State organs resulted in the depopulation of 24 Armenian villages. During the purges hundreds of Armenians were arrested and killed.
Independence of NKR proclaimed
In the face of the forthcoming Azeri aggression and the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union, the leaders of Artsakh understood the necessity of founding their own statehood in Artsakh. This decision, though opposed to the unanimous popular will to incorporate the region with Armenia, allowed ensuring the security of the population in an optimum way. On September 2, 1991 a joint session of deputies of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Shahumian region voted for an independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. On December 10, 1991 the overwhelming majority of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Shahumian region voted for independence in the referendum held in presence of international observers and Human Rights watch. On January 6, 1992 the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) was officially proclaimed, and on the next day, Arthur Mkrtichyan was elected Chairman of the NKR Parliament.
Azerbaijan begins military actions
From December 1991, the Azerbaijani forces deployed large-scale military operations against Artsakh. The Azeri-populated areas, especially Shushi and Hodjallu were quickly converted into mighty military bases, from which artillery and rocket launchers began systematic bombing of Stepanakert and the surrounding Armenian villages. The "Grad" projectile banned by many international conventions as a weapon of mass destruction was widely used by Azeri military. The twenty-four-hour a day bombing and shelling caused hundreds of deaths and turned the life of Stepanakert inhabitants into a constant nightmare. The Armenians took shelter in basements. Many establishments and institutions, including hospitals and maternity homes also relocated in basements.
First Armenian victories
The Azeri regular forces, heavily superior in men and machines, began a large-scale offensive in the beginning of 1992. In the early stages of the war, the small groups of Armenian volunteers called Fedayi played the major role in defending the Armenian border villages. However, the growing Azeri aggression necessitated reorganizing the Armenian Fedayi brigades into an effective force under united command. In January of 1992, the special Headquarters was formed to coordinate the defense forces of Artsakh. During the following weeks, the Armenians won their first serious military victories in Stepanakert-adjacent villages of Kirkijan, Malibeyli and Ghushchilar.
Liberation of Khodjalu, Shushi and Lachin
After the elimination of Azeri bridgeheads near Stepanakert, the liberation of Khodjalu became the primary task, as the Azeri forces concentrated in this large village considerable manpower and military equipment. Also, that would allow regaining control over the airport, located in Khodjalu.
The operation started on February 25, 1992, when the Armenians took up the positions in the west of Khodjalu. The enemy was offered to surrender the village while a humanitarian corridor for the civilians was established. Conversely, the Azeri commandment resumed the military actions, using the Azeri civilians as a shield. On February 26, Khodjalu was liberated, which finally allowed the normal functioning of the airport.
However, from the city of Shushi, towering above Stepanakert and converted into a mighty military base, intensive bombardment continued day and night, causing many casualties. The Armenian military commandment decided to eliminate the firing points throughout Artsakh. Thus, the liberation of Shushi became vital necessity. Because of its unique geographic location, Shushi was always considered inaccessible fortress. There is a saying: Whoever controls Shushi, will control Karabakh.
The Shushi operation began on May 8, 1992. First, the Armenian forces under Arkady Ter-Tadevossian gained control over Shushi-Lachin road. Then, following an onslaught from the northeast, they broke through the Azeri defense line. After street fighting on May 9, the defeated Azeri troops finally left the city. Continuing the offensive, the Armenians gradually liberated the all-important strong points along the Shushi-Lachin-Zabuh road, and, on May 18 they took the town of Lachin. Thus, after the 3-year blockade, a land bridge linking the Republic of Armenia with the NKR was reestablished.
Elshibey launches new offensive
Meanwhile, the leaders of Azerbaijan planned a new large-scale offensive. Abulfaz Elchibey, the leader of the Popular Front elected President of Azerbaijan, declared the rapid military victory in Karabakh his major objective. The Azeri leadership made financial arrangement with commanders of the former Soviet 23-d division of the 4-th Army, winning over a large number of Russian officers, especially in the Tanks. On June 12, 1992 Azeri infantry supported by many Russian Tank corps launched an unprecedented offensive on the Shahumian region. During the next week, Azeri forces succeeded in taking control over the Shahumian region, and also occupied most of the Mardakert region. Some 40,000 refugees fled to Stepanakert, while small groups of the Shahumian fighters led by Shahen Meghryan were trying to penetrate into the occupied areas to wage guerrilla warfare.
Half of Karabakh under Azeri occupation
As the danger of further Azeri advances persisted, the NKR Parliament declared a state of emergency. The situation worsened to impending disaster when the Armenian defenders retreated from Mardakert and Aterk, on July 5, 1992. The whole Mardakert region was embroiled in combats. At the same time, the Azeri troops tried to break through the Armenian positions in Askeran, Martouni and Hadrout regions. On August 12, as half of the NKR territory fell under the Azeri occupation, the NKR Parliament decreed marshal law and the mobilization of 18-45 year-olds. On August 15, the State Defense Committee of the NKR was formed, and Robert Kocharyan became its Chairman with emergency powers.
Armenians withstand Azeri attacks
The summer of 1992 was crucial. Despite great losses, the Armenians were able to withstand furious attacks on all front lines. Azeri military widely used bomber forces, in which Russian and Ukrainian mercenary pilots played the major role. Dropping forbidden cluster bombs on the Armenian villages became a common practice. In the fall of 1992, the Azeri troops tried to regain control over Lachin, but were definitively hurled back. Following the Armenian counterattack, the military operations moved to the Kubatli region of Azerbaijan. However, most of the Mardakert region was still under the Azeri control.
Another Armenian counteroffensive took place in February 1993. After a number of fierce battles, the Armenian fighters regained control over the Sarsang Reservoir. In March, the NKR Army began the Kelbajar operation, which succeeded in April. The Azeri forces responded with desperate attacks from the East, but the defense of the Martuni region was well organized by Monte, whose exceptional courage and devotion to the liberation of Artsakh made him the legendary Armenian hero.
The liberation of the city of Mardakert on June 27, 1993 was a turning point. Afterwards, the elimination of mighty weapon emplacements in the city of Aghdam became an urgent objective. At the very beginning of the conflict, Aghdam was converted into a dangerous base, packed with ammunition and weapons. On July 23, Aghdam was taken, which allowed the inhabitants of Stepanakert and Askeran relaxing after 18 months of non-stop bombing.
In August of 1993, the major operations took place in the Hadrout region, which was finally liberated by the advancing Armenian forces on August 26. By the end of August, Djebrail and Kubatli regions also fell under the Armenian control. The Armenian victories forced the Azeri military leadership to call off their troops, and a lull was established for the next 45 days. Then, Azerbaijan resumed the military operations trying to recapture the strong points in the Hadrout region. However, the Azeri forces suffered a new repulse. Continuing their offensive, the Armenians also took the Zanguelan region. In February 1994, the Azeri troops made their last attempt to break the Armenian positions in northeast of the NKR, but were defeated again. In April, the final lull was established after the Armenian fighters gained a number of important commanding heights in the Mardakert region. To this day, the NKR Army continues to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as a buffer area comprising neighboring regions in the Azerbaijan Republic.
A cease-fire brokered by Russia and other countries of the CIS was signed in Bishkek, Kirghizia on May 5, 1994. The truce was confirmed on May 16 in Moscow during the meeting of the Defense Ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and the NKR. Since then, the issue has become the focus of mediation efforts of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). A special group, called "Minsk group" was formed by OSCE to work out principles of settling the conflict.
Ghukassian elected President of the NKR
In April of 1995, the first parliamentary elections took place in Artsakh in new and peaceful conditions, to form a new 33-seat legislature. In November of 1996, the first nation-wide presidential elections were held in Artsakh, and Robert Kocharyan was elected President of the NKR to a five-year term. However, as Kocharyan accepted Levon Ter-Petrossian's offer to become Prime Minister of Armenia in March 1997, new presidential elections were held in Artsakh in September 1997. Arkady Ghukassian, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the NKR, was elected President with 89% of the vote.