Shusha (Azerbaijan) (AFP) -
Armenia accused Azerbaijan on Thursday of shelling a historic cathedral in Nagorno-Karabakh while international mediators seeking to halt escalating fighting over the disputed region were expected to meet in Geneva.
Armenia said several journalists were injured in strikes on the cathedral after an initial bombardment left rubble strewn across the floor, pews knocked over and a layer of dust coating the interior from parts of the building's limestone walls that had been hit.
'There is no military, nothing strategic here, how can you target a church?' said local resident Simeon, who lives nearby.
Expectations for any major breakthrough from the talks in Geneva were low and no statements were expected from the negotiations being held behind closed doors -- and without Armenian participation.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have for nearly two weeks been locked in bitter fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijani region controlled by Armenians who declared an unrecognised breakaway statelet after the the fall of the USSR and emerged victorious from the war that followed.
Hundreds including civilians have been killed in the current fighting, the worst since a 1994 ceasefire, with both sides doubling down on entrenched positions over who should control the region.
Defence officials in Azerbaijan and Armenia said fighting continued into Thursday, with both sides claiming to have inflicted heavy losses and accusing the other of shelling civilian areas.
There was a gaping hole in the roof of the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral, AFP journalists reported, after Armenia's defence ministry accused Azerbaijan of targeting a cherished site for the Armenian Apostolic Church.
- Thousands forced to flee -
A section of the cathedral's metal roof collapsed and fell to the ground outside.
Baku denied its forces were behind the first attack, saying that unlike Armenia, 'the Azerbaijani army does not target historical, cultural, or especially religious, buildings and monuments.'
Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov was to meet diplomats from France, Russia and the United States, who make up the 'Minsk Group' that has sought a solution to the Karabakh conflict since the 1990s.
Armenia's Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan was not scheduled to attend after Yerevan ruled out talks between the two countries' top diplomats as long as clashes are ongoing. He will instead meet his Russian counterpart in Moscow on Monday.
Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Thursday that Moscow was consulting with Yerevan and Baku over possible dates for a meeting between their foreign ministers.
Explosions and sirens sounded in Nagorno-Karabakh's regional capital Stepanakert as the city continued to face regular shelling early Thursday, AFP journalists said.
Heavy bombardments have levelled many homes since fighting erupted late last month and Stepanakert is pockmarked with unexploded ordnance and wide craters from shelling.
Alongside the new bombardments in Stepanakert, Azerbaijan said Armenian shelling on several villages near the frontline had left people dead and wounded.
Alamshar Hasanov, a resident of Shukurbeyli near the border with Karabakh, said his village was subjected to Armenian shelling on a daily basis.
'See for yourself,' he said. 'A neighbour's house was destroyed.'
'May God grant our soldiers, officers, and commanders health. We rely on them,' he told AFP.
Armenia's rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told AFP on Wednesday that the renewed fighting has displaced around half of Karabakh's 140,000 residents and forced some 90 percent of its women and children from their homes.
The fighting in one of the most combustible frozen conflicts resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union reignited on September 27, with Azerbaijan insisting the region must return to its control.
- Threat of international conflict -
Dozens of civilians have been confirmed killed in the fighting and the Armenian side has acknowledged more than 300 military deaths. Azerbaijan has not admitted to any fatalities among its troops.
International leaders have repeatedly called for an immediate halt to the fighting but there are no signs yet of the conflict abating.
Turkey's strong backing for Azerbaijan has sown fears in the West that the conflict could spiral into a full-blown war embroiling Ankara with Moscow, which has a military treaty with Armenia.
Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron are among the world leaders to denounce the reported deployment of pro-Turkish fighters from Syria and Libya to Karabakh. Iran on Wednesday warned of 'terrorists' who had joined the conflict from abroad.
Azerbaijan announced Thursday that it was recalling its ambassador to Athens following reports that Greek citizens were joining Armenian forces in Karabakh.