“At 7 am Armenians surrounded the village from all sides and shot everywhere. At 8 am our soldiers told us we had to leave the village. Some of us were killed on the road while fleeing.”15

Meanwhile Stepanakert was being steadily destroyed. Many buildings were reduced to rubble. The “Grad” rockets rained down from Shushi onto the civilians of Stepanakert. (“Grad” is the Russian word for “hail”). The capture of the Azerbaijani stronghold of Shushi was becoming a must for the Armenians. The operation was essential if Stepanakert and all its inhabitants were not to be completely annihilated. Biut it was necessary to take Khojali first. On the night of February 25-26 Armenian forces seized the Azerbaijani town of Khojali, located about ten miles from Stepanakert. On orders from colonel A. Ter-Tadevossians, the Armenians had advanced to Khojali, then immediately turned back. That’s why when the real attack was launched on February 25, the Azerbaijanis didn’t know to believe it or not. The Armenians had left open a corridor for the Azerbaijanis through which they could escape to Aghdam. In 1988 the population of Khojali was 2 thousand and it had the status of a village, in 1992 this number grew to 5 thousand, as Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and Turk-Meshkhetians from Central Asia had been resettled there. Khojali received the status of town from the Azerbaijani government only in December 1991, and, after Shushi it became the second most populous Azerbaijani town in Karabakh. The only airport in Nagorny Karabakh was located in Khojali and since 1990 an Azerbaijani OMON militia unit was deployed there with the purpose of defending the town and the airport. Displaced persons said that as many as forty militiamen were present in Khojali. In addition it had self-defence group of about 200 Armenian fighters sent ultimata to the Azerbaijani forces in Khojali warning that unless missile attacks from that town in Khopanakert ceased, Armenian forces would attack. According to an Azerbaijani woman interviewed by Helsinki Watch in Baku , “the Armenians made an ultimatus to Khojali after seizing Malibeili.” She added that “Khojali people had better leave with a white flag. Alif Gajiev (the head of the militia in Khojali) told us this on February 15, but this didn’t frighten us. We never believed they could occupy Khojali.”16

The attack on Khojali began about 11 pm on February 25, with heavy shelling and artillery fire. Residents fled the town in separate groups, amid chaos and panic, most of them without any belongings or clothes for cold weather. As a result, hundreds of people suffered, and some died from severe frostbite.17 Among one of the fleeing groups was the Azerbaijani OMON, led by Alif Hajiev, according to several Helsinki Watch interviewers at Nakhichevanik village, a firing took place between the Armenians accompanied by the CIS 366th regiment and the retreating OMON militia and the fleeing residents. All Azerbaijanis interviewed reported that the militia, still in uniform and armed, were interspersed with the masses of civilians and “there was shooting between Armenian soldiers and ours.”

What had happened to those dead at night, nobody could tell. Beginning February 27, Azerbaijani helicopters brought in personnel who attempted to collect bodies and assist the wounded. Members of the group, accompanied by journalists, reported that some of the corpses had been scalped or otherwise mutiliated. The mission was videotaped.

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