Shusha is located on a mountaintop and overlooks the NKR highly-populated capital, Stepanakert (just 5 km away), from an elevation of 600m. An old fortress with high walls, the town is five kilometers (four miles) to the south of Stepanakert and perched on a mountaintop with limited vehicular access to reach it. From a geographical standpoint it was well-suited for Azerbaijani shelling of Stepanakert. The mainstay artillery platform used in the bombardment, which began on January 10, 1992, was the Soviet built BM-21 GRAD multiple rocket launcher capable of firing 40 rockets simultaneously, a modern variant of the widely used World War II weapon, the Katyusha. The GRAD launcher was similar to the Katyusha in that it did not have a guided missile system and hence the location of where it would hit was difficult to determine. Essentially, Grad is designed to deliver anti-personnel devastation on an open battlefield, while the Azerbaijanis used it to shell civilians in a highly-populated capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Dubbed "flying telephone poles" due to their long, shaped charges, the missiles caused devastating damage to buildings including the destruction of residential houses, schools, the city's silk factory and maternity hospital.
On December 12, 1991, M. Gozalov, the head of the raion's executive was assassinated. On December 27 of the same year Armenian forces occupied the Azerbaijani settlement Karkicahan near Stepanakert, killing a number of people. Those who survived fled, or were evacuated to Shusha. A few days later, on January 28, Armenian forces shot down a transport helicopter over the village of Khyalfyali, which was carrying more than 40 women, children and the elderly from Shusha. The pilot guided the stricken plane away from the populated areas, but couldn’t save any of the passengers or himself and his crew.
On January 23, 1992, Azerbaijan's defense minister T. Mekhtiyev arrived to Shusha and tried to retain the nearby village of Dashalty, which the Armenians were using as a fortified position. The reciprocal Azeri shelling had begun.
Shusha was the main fire point from where Stepanakert was assaulted. Once the region's Communist Party headquarters and largest city with a population of 70,000, the fighting and shelling had driven away nearly 20,000 of Stepanakert's residents and forced the remainder to live underground in basements. By one tally recorded in early April, a total of 157 rockets had landed on the city in a single day. By early 1992 the bombing intensified. In a course of one week the city was bombed with over 1,000 shells (800 of which were reactive shells). This left 20 civilians dead. On February 23, ten servicemen in the Russian-led CIS 366th Motorized Rifle Regiment (of the 23rd Motor Rifle Division, 4th Army) headquartered in Stepanakert, tasked with maintaining peace between the Armenians and Azeris, were injured and one was killed in a bombardment by the artillery units.
Altogether, over 2,000 civilians were killed and thousands more injured in the bombardment in 1992; moreover, the city's infrastructure was completely severed with the destruction of sewage networks, water pipes, gas and electricity. In an article filed by a journalist for Time, it was noted that "scarcely a single building escaped damage in Stepanakert." By one tally recorded in early April, a total of 157 rockets had landed on the city in a single day.
In addition to the shelling, the Azeri military also launched air raids and staged several ground attacks on the outskirts of Stepanakert in hopes of later moving on to capture the city itself. While they were staved off numerous times, the city's leaders complained that military action had to be taken to relieve it from the continuous bombardment. On April 27, the military leaders' plans were approved to move in and capture the town.
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