Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Of Azeris Killed in Offensive

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan has lost "thousands" of troops during a January offensive around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a senior international aid worker based on the Azeri side of the front line.

The aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that bodies were "lying around on the battlefield" because the two sides would not agree on a cease-fire allowing them to collect their dead.

"This last month we fear thousands have lost their lives for sure," said the official, who had been working on the front lines. "It's the first time there's been serious sustained confrontation. That's why there have been huge numbers of casualties."

After months of retreat before advancing Armenian troops, the Azeri army began a large-scale offensive in mid-December to try to recover some of the 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory that Armenian forces had captured.

In fighting all around the Armenian dominated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeris have made small gains in places, but have lost large numbers of troops in the process.

Sheer weight of numbers enabled the Azeris to recapture the railway junction of Horadiz near the Azeri-Iranian border. Western diplomats in Baku believe the Azeris lost more than 600 soldiers in that operation alone.

The head of the Nagorno-Karabakh army told The Associated Press on Monday that 5,000 Azeri soldiers had been killed since Dec. 18. Both sides, however, routinely exaggerate each others losses.

In their offensive, Azeri troops also recaptured the strategically important Morov mountains and villages in the Kelbajar region between Armenia proper and Karabakh, but these could prove to be Pyrrhic victories as the Azeri supply lines extend over a 3,000 meter-high mountain pass in mid-winter.

Asad Issazade, the Azeri Defense Ministry spokesman, put the number of Azeri casualties from the Kelbajar operation at "more than a hundred" and for the month of January at "hundreds on both sides." But he added that it was only an estimate: "I'm not allowed to give you the numbers, so I don't get given them myself," he said.

Many of the Azeris killed were unwilling young conscripts press-ganged into training camps around Azerbaijan last summer and autumn.

In a training exercise witnessed by this correspondent last November, hundreds of young Azeris marched out of a camp some 40 kilometers west of Baku. They were split into two large groups and charged at each other across a muddy patch of wasteland. It would appear similar tactics have been employed in the present offensive.

There is little or no reporting here of the heavy Azeri losses because of strict censorship.

But there are an increasing number of funerals. New graves, draped with Azeri flags, appear every day in the martyrs' cemetery outside the parliament in Baku.

In Yevlak, some 80 kilometers from the front, the men who make and erect tombstones were hard at work in the town's main cemetery last week.

"That one went to the front on Friday and came here on Tuesday," said Fahad Mamedov, a grave digger, pointing at a new tomb just being covered with a layer of concrete.

Azeris are aware that a high price is being paid at the front, but the general feeling appears to be that the tide has turned and that at last Azerbaijan is winning in its long war with Armenia.

The Azeri president, Geidar Aliyev, is receiving credit for the recent victories. Portraits and photos of Aliyev, a former Azeri Communist Party leader, now hang in virtually every shop window and office in Baku.

Aliyev has hired about a thousand Afghan mujahedin mercenaries to stiffen the backbone of the Azeri army. The Afghans can be seen quite openly in the lobby of one of Baku's main hotels. So too can soldiers from Kazakhstan be seen in the streets of Barda, just to the northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Both sides use mercenaries from the former Soviet armed forces. In Azerbaijan, former members of the U.S. armed forces are conducting military training, according to Western diplomats.

The same sources say military representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran have been training Azeri conscripts in army camps around the country.

A recent report in The Independent of London said that a British-registered company is negotiating with the Azeri authorities to send arms and mercenaries to Azerbaijan via Turkish Cyprus.

But the training that Azerbaijan is buying does not appear to be having a dramatic effect its military fortunes. It is not clear that Azerbaijan can sustain the present offensive, which has recaptured relatively little ground.

More than 15,000 people are estimated to have died in this six-year conflict, which began when the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh began a campaign for greater autonomy and the Azeri authorities tried to stamp it out.

Western diplomats in Baku believe that the recent Azeri advance will soon run out of steam.

Asim Mollazade of Azerbaijan's opposition Popular Front, said last week that "the Armenians have already gone on the counteroffensive, but Aliyev doesn't want the people to know."