The Battle of Kelbajar was the capture of the western region of Kelbajar, Azerbaijan during the 1993 spring-summer campaign by Armenian military forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Kelbajar was outside the boundaries of the contested enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian and Azeri forces had been fighting over for five years. Bordering Armenia proper, the predominantly Armenian populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh had announced their declaration of independence from Azerbaijan in 1991 and fighting had taken place mostly in the enclave itself. Seeking to keep the territory under its rule, the Armenians of Karabakh were aided by Armenia itself in the form of logistics, supplies, volunteers and military weaponry. Kelbajar, only several kilometers from Armenia's border, was comprised of several dozen villages including its eponymous provincial capital.
Kelbajar is a raion that is surrounded by several canyons and an elevated mountain range known as the Mrav Mountains. In the attack, Armenian forces from four different directions, including Armenia proper, assaulted and captured a space of over 1,900 kilometers. This linked it with region of Nagorno-Karabakh and opened a second "corridor" for Armenia to send aid through. Most of Kelbajar's civilian population had been transported out of the town prior to the battle. Kelbajar is currently under the control of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
On May 9, 1992, Armenian forces captured the mountain stronghold of Shusha and remained on the defensive until the following year. Fighting between Armenians and Azeris continued in other parts of the enclave including Lachin, Martuni, and Martakert. However, nearly all offensives launched by the Azeri military failed or were unable to hold on to the territory. By the spring of 1993, the Azeri military which had the upper hand in the initial stages of the war, had been largely reduced to unorganized and incoherent fighting groups. By March 1993, fighting had shifted to west and to the south of Karabakh.
In March 1993, military incursions by Azeri forces and artillery barrages were reported to have been coming from the region, prompting military leaders to announce an offensive against the rayon. However, a different reason was given by the Armenians' most successful commander of the conflict, Monte Melkonian. According to Melkonian, the commander of the southern front in Martuni, the decision to take the town was a matter of certainty rather than choice. He stated, "This is a historical issue… of course this is historical Armenia… And we'll vindicate that reality [to the Azeris] with our guns. Unfortunately! It would be nice if the Azeris would understand that reality is reality, agree and say OK, it's yours, and that's that. Questioned on the possibility of a large expulsion of civilians if the region was captured, Melkonian responded, "A lot of blood has been spilled on both sides… The emotions are high and that isn't conducive to living together in near or medium future.
The battered village of Charekdar in Kelbajar had already seen extensive fighting in earlier weeks and was reinforced by both Azeri and foreign fighters as the Armenian offensive commenced on March 27. However, instead of launching a simultaneous attack, only the units in Aghdaban and Nareshtar moved out. Melkonian's armored column did not move out until later on and his units faced tenacious resistance on an embankment of entrenched defenses where his forces were forced to retreat. The troops in Vardenis began their assault shortly thereafter but their advance was slowed since they had to move trek through the snowy passes of the Mrav Mountains.
On March 28, Melkonian's forces counterattacked Charekdar and an eight-hour battle ensued until his forces were able to break through the defenses. The disparity of Azeri defenses scattered through the region allowed them to advance twenty-nine kilometers, reaching the Tatar River on March 31. Within another twenty kilometers of his forces' positions was the Kelbajar's namesake capital and a crucial road intersection that led to Lachin and the village of Zulufgarli.
After the Zulufgarli incident, his forces pushed forward and reached another vital intersection leading to Ganja, fifteen kilometers away from the capital. Civilians in Kelbajar continued to be evacuated by both air and the through the intersection and Melkonian halted his advance by a further forty hours to allow the traffic column to move through. On April 1, his forces issued a radio message to the governor of the region, instructing his forces to leave the capital. An ultimatum was placed until 2 P.M. of the following day. Identified by his radio codename, "Khan", the governor responded back and stated, "We're never going to leave… we'll fight to the end.
By April 3, the Armenian forces had encircled the capital and resistance had weakened. Azeri commander Suret Husseinov and his 709th brigade which had been tasked to defending the Mrav Mountains, had retreated to Ganja after political and military problems began to unravel upon in the battlefield. An account of the war-weariness afflicting the habitants of the town was described by Melkonian's elder brother, Markar:
Although his contingent did not reach in time for the fighting, the city's capital was taken. Aside from some farm life, the town had been largely abandoned. The taking of the region marked a continuous swath of territory held by Armenians stretching from Karabakh to Armenia proper, a total of 3,000 square kilometers. In the retreat through the Omar Pass of the Mrav mountains, many Azeri refugees froze to death. With the last helicopters leaving on April 1, they were forced to walk through the heavy snow at freezing temperatures. Approximately 20–30,000 civilians were processed into the camps at Yevlakh. Although casualty counts were not properly ascertained, civilian deaths nevertheless, exceeded them.
On April 30, 1993, Turkey and Pakistan co-sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution 822 which called for Armenians in the region to withdraw immediately from Kelbajar and other areas of Azerbaijan. Turkey's President Turgut Özal called for military intervention on Azerbaijan's side and set forth on a tour of Turkic former Soviet republics on April 14. (Ozal would die of a heart attack three days later). Iran also condemned the offensive since many refugees in Azerbaijan were fleeing south towards its borders.