Armenian or allied Nagorno-Karabakh forces repeatedly fired widely banned cluster munitions in attacks on populated areas in Azerbaijan during the six-week war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch said. The use of cluster munitions violates the laws of war due to the weapons’ inherently indiscriminate nature.
During a visit in Azerbaijan in November 2020, Human Rights Watch researchers documented four attacks with cluster munitions in three of the country’s districts. They killed at least seven civilians, including two children, and wounded close to 20, including two children.
“Cluster munitions are a brutal weapon, banned under an international treaty, and using them shows flagrant disregard for civilian life,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Both Armenia and Azerbaijan should make an immediate commitment not to use cluster munitions and join the treaty banning them.”
Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery, rockets, and mortars, or dropped by aircraft. They typically open in the air, dispersing multiple bomblets or submunitions over a wide area, putting anyone in the area at the time of attack, whether combatants or civilians, at risk of death or injury. In addition, many of the submunitions do not explode on contact, but remain armed, becoming de facto landmines. Locations contaminated by unexploded submunitions remain dangerous until the remnants are cleared and destroyed.
Human Rights Watch did research about the intense fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh from September 27 until a ceasefire on November 11. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch documented Azerbaijan’s use of cluster munitions in four attacks: three in Stepanakert and one in Hadrut. Human Rights Watch also documented a cluster munition attack on the city of Barda in Azerbaijan that killed 21 civilians and wounded 70 in October.
During a research trip in Azerbaijan in the first half of November, Human Rights Watch documented four attacks with cluster munitions by Armenian forces, including one in Barda district, two in Goranboy district, and one in Tartar district. While Human Rights Watch was not in a position to determine the presence or proximity of military personnel, equipment, or vehicles at the impact sites at the time of the attacks, the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions makes their use a violation of the laws of war, irrespective of whether there were legitimate military targets in the areas.
Witnesses said that an attack by Armenian forces between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. on October 5 in Gizilhajili, a small village in Goranboy district roughly 30 kilometers from the then-front line, killed Raziya Abbasova, 65, wounded three of her neighbors, including one child, and set fire to the nearby house of Gulnara Huseynova, 46. The Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) identified the munition used as a Smerch rocket. Residents said they counted at least six explosions. Human Rights Watch visited the area on November 9 and identified four impact sites and observed fragmentation damage consistent with a Smerch cluster munition rocket attack.
Yashar Abbasov, 58, said that two blasts hit his property, and that his wife, Raziya, was killed in the second attack. He keeps a photograph of Raziya under a cloth, on a dresser with a mirror that was also damaged in the attack that killed her. “Just before it all happened, a neighbor called me and I stepped out in the street to see him,” he said. “I was 15 meters from our place and then there was this horrible sound and the ground started shaking. [I] ran back – but it was too late.”
During the attacks, their 9-year-old neighbor Eljan Hasanov was wounded, together with his grandfather, Mashdi, 62, and aunt, Sevinj, 36. Eljan’s mother, Ziyafat Hasanova, 35, said that Eljan was playing outside with his two sisters when they heard an explosion and rushed home. Eljan’s grandmother, Jamila Allahverdiyeva, said the entryway “was splattered in blood” and all the windows had shattered.
In Tapgaragoyunlu, a village in Goranboy district that was repeatedly shelled in the course of the six-week war, Anar Safarov, a local resident, showed Human Rights Watch where submunitions from a cluster munition attack damaged his home on October 23. “About seven or eight of them landed here, dropping all over the yard,” he said. “I hid behind the wall [of the shed] and did not get out until it was over.” ANAMA identified the munition as a Smerch rocket. Human Rights Watch observed fragmentation damage consistent with a Smerch cluster munition rocket attack.
Human Rights Watch is not in a position to say whether there were any legitimate military targets in Gizilhajili on October 5. When Human Rights Watch visited the strike site on November 8, researchers did not observe any military objectives in the vicinity. However, on the road from the district center, Goranboy, to Gizilhajili, researchers saw at least 10 large military transport trucks. While in Tapgaragoyunlu on November 9, Human Rights Watch observed a significant military presence, including a large military base and numerous military trucks. The presence of military targets does not justify indiscriminate attacks on densely populated areas, and particularly not cluster munition attacks.
In Tartar district, at around 10 a.m. on October 24, Orkhan Mammadov, 16, from the village of Khoruzlu, was killed in a cluster munition attack as he was working picking pomegranates in an orchard outside the village of Kebirli. His cousins Togrul Mammadov, 11, and Parviz Alishev, 14, were with him. “We heard this weird whooshing sound,” Parviz said. “Togrul and I [dropped to the ground] but Orhan didn’t. The shrapnel hit him in his back, went out his chest. He died instantly.”
The authorities said the strike was carried out by a Smerch rocket. Human Rights Watch observed a small impact crater and sheared-off tree branches, consistent with a submunition attack. Residents were not aware of any military objectives in the area at the time of the attack, and Human Rights Watch did not see any military installations or transport in the vicinity of the site.
In the village of Garayusifli, Barda district, a cluster munition attack at around 4:30 p.m. on October 27 killed five civilians and wounded 15.
Rafig Isgandarov, 58, a local resident, said he heard “multiple, consecutive explosions, within a minute. Thirty hectares of land were affected by the explosions.” The attack killed his granddaughter, Aysu Iskandarova, 7, and wounded her cousin Tahira Isgandarli, 3, in her lower right leg. “It landed in my neighbor’s livestock pen, and a piece went through the gate and killed my little girl,” said Aysu’s father, Rovshan Isgandarov, 32. Human Rights Watch observed significant damage to 12 houses in the area.
Local residents said that Ofelia Jafarova, 48, was wounded and died on the way to the hospital, and Almaz Aliyeva, 60, died the following day. Ehtiram Imayilov, 40, was killed, and his wife and daughter were still hospitalized as of early November. Aybeniz Ahmadova, 61, was killed while working in a field. “She was pierced with so many fragments that they had to wrap her body in plastic to stop the bleeding,” said Elnur Khalilov, 46, the village authorities’ representative.
Human Rights Watch observed seven small craters in the field consistent with the impacts of cluster submunitions. The village of 290 families, most with small farms, had not been attacked before or after October 27. Human Rights Watch did not observe any military installation or military transportation movement in the vicinity at the time of the visit, and residents said they were not aware of any military targets in the area at the time of the attack.
In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on November 27 in Yerevan, a Foreign Affairs Ministry representative denied that Armenia possesses any cluster munitions in its arsenal.
Standard international reference publications, including the authoritative annual Military Balance 2020 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, state that Armenia has Tockhka and Iskander ballistic missiles and Smerch and Chinese-made WM-80 multi-barrel rocket launchers, all of which can deliver cluster munition warheads. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, Nagorno-Karabakh forces do not possess cluster munitions, and it is therefore likely that Armenian forces carried out the attacks or supplied the munitions to Nagorno-Karabakh forces.
As prohibited weapons, cluster munitions should not be used or supplied by anyone under any circumstances, Human Rights Watch said.