BAKU - Azerbaijan said Sunday its forces had captured the key town of Shusha from Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Armenia insisted that fighting for the strategically vital area was ongoing.
The capture of Shusha would be a major victory for Azerbaijan six weeks after new fighting erupted over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke away from Azerbaijan's control in the 1990s.
The fortress town sits on cliffs around 15 kilometres (nine miles) from Nagorno-Karabakh's largest city Stepanakert and on the main road through the region to the territory of Armenia, which backs the separatists.
Both sides have reported fierce clashes around the town in recent days, after Azerbaijani forces swept across the southern flank of Nagorno-Karabakh and pushed through its mountain passes.
In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced that the town had been captured.
"With great pride and joy, I inform you that the town of Shusha has been liberated," said Aliyev, dressed in military fatigues and standing in front of an Azerbaijani flag.
He said November 8 would "go down in the history of the Azerbaijani people" as the day "we returned to Shusha".
"Our liberation march continues. We will go to the end, until the complete liberation of the occupied territories," Aliyev said.
- Celebrations in Baku -
Flag-waving Azerbaijanis celebrated in the capital Baku after Aliyev's announcement, with cars honking their horns as residents crowded along city streets.
Armenian officials confirmed there were heavy clashes for the town but said the battle was far from over.
"The fighting continues in Shushi, wait and believe in our army," Armenian defence ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said, using the Armenian name for the town, shortly after Aliyev's announcement.
Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said there was "the most ferocious combat" overnight for the town, while the Armenian government said taking Shusha was an "unattainable pipe dream for Azerbaijan".
"Despite heavy destruction, the fortress city withstands the blows of the adversary," it said.
In the streets of the Armenian capital Yerevan, residents said they did not believe the town had been taken.
"To know who controls Shushi we will listen to the commanders of our army, not Aliyev," 50-year-old Arman told AFP on the city's central Abovyan Street.
"In any case I can assure you that the war will not be finished if the Azerbaijanis take Shushi."
Shusha had been a majority Azerbaijani city before the 1990s conflict and has been a rallying cry for authorities in Baku promising to retake Nagorno-Karabakh.
New clashes broke out in late September between Azerbaijan and the Armenia-backed separatists over control of Karabakh, which declared its independence nearly 30 years ago.
That declaration has not been recognised internationally, even by Armenia, and it remains a part of Azerbaijan under international law.
The recent flare-up has been the worst in decades, with more than 1,000 people confirmed dead including dozens of civilians, although the death toll is believed to be much higher.
- Diplomatic efforts -
Fighting has continued despite several attempts by Russia, France and the United States to help reach a lasting ceasefire.
The three countries make up the "Minsk Group" of mediators that helped broker a truce between the ex-Soviet rivals in 1994 but have failed to find a lasting solution to the long-simmering conflict.
Diplomatic efforts appeared to intensify as the fighting raged around Shusha, with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday speaking by phone to Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Turkey is a key ally of Azerbaijan and on Sunday Erdogan congratulated Baku after its claim of retaking Shusha, saying it was "a sign that the liberation of the rest of the occupied territories is near".
Turkish involvement would be key in any agreement to halt the fighting and there were reports Sunday of a plan to deploy Russian and Turkish peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Ankara has been a fierce supporter of Azerbaijan, a fellow Muslim and Turkic country, while Moscow has a defence pact with Armenia and a military base on its territory.
Aliyev's office said Sunday he was meeting with the Turkish foreign and defence ministers in Baku.