On the evening of July 4, Azerbaijani forces utilized TR-107 rocket launchers against Armenian military positions near the Karabakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact. Armenian forces retaliated and in an attempt to neutralize the firing position of the launcher – located in the village of Alkhanli according to Armenian defense officials – two civilians were killed, one of them was two-year-old Zahra Guliyeva.
The photo of the dead body of Guliyeva is being widely circulated in the Azerbaijani press and on social media. #Zahra on Twitter has countless variations of the child’s image from a photograph of her in the morgue to clip art. The bloodied body of a child has become a tool for Azerbaijani propaganda.
Since the April War in 2016, the Karabakh-Azerbaijan Contact Line has consistently seen violations of the ceasefire regime. Over the past 1.5 years, there have been several spikes in tensions, resulting in numerous casualties for both sides.
The last several days were no exception.
At 9:23 p.m. local time on July 4, the Karabakh (Artsakh) Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that the Azerbaijani side violated the ceasefire regime along the Karabakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact utilizing TR-107 rocket launchers (at approx. 8:20 p.m.) and wished to call the attention of relevant international bodies regarding this latest incident. The statement by the Karabakh Defense Ministry warned Azerbaijan that the response would be disproportionate.
At 9:56 p.m., the Russian RBC news site published an article stating that Armenian forces had fired artillery at the Azerbaijani village of Alkhanli (located in the Fizuli region) citing several Azerbaijani news sources including Haqqin.az and Vesti.az. The article stated that the village was under intense bombardment for several hours resulting in the death of two civilians.
At 11:14 p.m. local time, the NKR Defense Ministry issued another statement saying that in response to the violations of the ceasefire regime by Azerbaijan, in particular the use of TR-107 rocket launchers positioned in the Azerbaijani village of Alkhanli, Armenian forces responded (at approx. 10:30-10:40 p.m.) and in the process damaged the military position situated in the village. The statement went on to say that the Azerbaijani side had human losses. According to the NKR Defense Ministry statement, the Armenian side did not have any losses.
Earlier on July 4, the OSCE Mission had conducted a planned monitoring of the Contact Line along the eastern section of the Martuni region in Karabakh. According to the Artsakh Foreign Ministry, the monitoring “passed in accordance with the agreed schedule…However, the Azerbaijani side did not lead the OSCE mission to its front-line positions.”
On the following day, July 5, the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan confirmed that a 50-year-old woman and her two year old granddaughter were killed during the attack and another woman seriously wounded.
The Armenian side was quick to respond noting that the rocket launcher was positioned in “close proximity to residential buildings in Alkhanli village.” Artsakh’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 5 saying that the Armenian side was forced to “take counter-measures to suppress the fire activity of the Azerbaijani army. The incident provoked by the Azerbaijani side, unfortunately, led to casualties among the villagers.”
Lt. General Levon Mnatsakanyan of the Karabakh Defense Army expressed regret over the loss of civilian lives in the exchange of fire, however went on to say that the Armenian side would continue its right to defend itself. He said that Armenian forces do not target residential settlements and held Azerbaijan responsible for using its own people as human shields. “I advise the Azerbaijani side to refrain from military adventurism, which carries unpredictable consequences, and to search for ways to settle the matter through negotiations, as this is advantageous to both nations,” he said in an interview to Interfax news agency.
The OSCE Minsk Group issued a statement on July 5 calling on the sides to cease all military actions. “Violence only begets further violence and accomplishes nothing. The only responsible and humane way to resolve this long-standing conflict is for the sides to return to the negotiation table in good faith,” the statement read.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also weighed in. Maria Chakharova, the official representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Russia considers future bloodshed unacceptable: “We call on the sides to implement necessary measures to stabilize the situation. We support the announcement by the OSCE Minsk Group to stop the violence and resuming negotiations.”
Meanwhile on July 6, Hikmat Hajiyev, the spokesperson for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that a visit to the village of Alkhanli by foreign media and military attaches accredited to Azerbaijan was organized. The New York Times, BBC, Reuters and other news organizations have reported on the incident.
Hajiyev has taken to Twitter in a storm of tweets, writing statements such as “I’m sorry #Zahra. Sorry that our neighbor is bloodthirsty Armenia for its leadership killing children is profession by choice.”
While state bodies of both sides were giving interviews and international organizations were issuing statements and foreign media outlets were writing about this latest incident, the victims, in particular the child, were being used in a complex game of propaganda by Baku.
Ruben Melikian, Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender in a Facebook status on July 6 wrote that when Vaghinak Grigoryan, the 12-year-old Armenian child who was killed the first day of the April War (2016), “NKR authorities opted NOT to publish graphic pictures of the child’s body. Azerbaijan’s authorities, on the contrary, decided to publish the ones of the killed Azerbaijani child, provided by forensic experts. According to NKR MoD evidence-based statement, the incident was a result of unprovoked, serious and continuous violations of the cease-fire by Azerbaijan’s heavy weaponry deployed in the village of Alkhanli (human shielding).”
Shavarsh Kocharyan, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia told the Orakarg program of the country’s public television that Baku should be held responsible and said that the current regime “is founded on hatred towards a neighboring nation and the blood of its own population.” Kocharyan went on to say that Azerbaijan’s refusal to establish an investigation mechanism on the Contact Line “serves its intention to put the blame for its continuous provocations on the Armenian side.”
Since the 1994 ceasefire agreement, there have been countless instances when non-combatants have either been killed or injured both along the Karabakh-Azerbaijan Contact Line and along the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border.
Every time tensions escalate, both sides blame one another, both sides issue official statements, both sides suffer losses.
However, how nations deal with loss is a reflection of how they also confront issues of war and peace. Using this bloodied image of one of their own as a tool for propaganda speaks volumes.