Azeri president marks Nowruz in retaken cultural city

MOSCOW — Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev marked the Nowruz holiday Saturday by lighting a ceremonial fire outside Shusha, a culturally revered city that Azerbaijan took from Armenian forces in last autumn’s war.

Shusha, a center of Azeri culture for centuries, came under Armenian control in 1992 in fighting over the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region. Its retaking by Azerbaijan’s forces in November was important both symbolically and strategically because it sits high above the region’s nearby capital, Stepanakert.

“Today we are celebrating Nowruz in our ancient city Shusha, the cultural capital of Azerbaijan. This is a historic event. This is a great happiness. God heard the prayers of the Azerbaijani people,” Aliyev said after lighting the fire, a traditional way of celebrating Nowruz, the Persian new year, in a video released by the presidential office on Saturday.

“Shusha may have been destroyed, our historical sites in Shusha may have been destroyed by the loathsome enemy. However, Shusha did not bend. Shusha did not break. It preserved its dignity, protected the national spirit of Azerbaijan, and today, while in Shusha, we are witnessing this once again,” he said.

Azerbaijan regained control of much of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian-held surrounding territories in last year’s six-week war in which more than 6,000 people died.