- 28 thousand Armenians left Karabakh
- The roads outside the enclave were choked
- The number of victims of the fuel depot fire has increased
- The United States urges Azerbaijan to allow in observers and aid
Goris (Armenia), September 27 (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Armenians rushed on Wednesday to flee the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia after a lightning military operation carried out by Azerbaijan that redrawn the features of the post-Soviet South Caucasus region.
So far, more than 28,000 of the 120,000 Armenians in Karabakh, a region internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, have crossed the border into Armenia, a country with a population of about 2.8 million people.
Azerbaijan’s military victory over the enclave, which was previously outside Baku’s control, a week ago led to one of the largest movements of people in the South Caucasus since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The steep, winding mountain road from Karabakh towards Armenia was choked with people. Many sleep in cars or search for firewood on the side of the road.
“I left everything behind. I don’t know what’s in store for me. I don’t have anything. I don’t want anything,” Vera Petrosyan, a 70-year-old retired teacher, told Reuters on Tuesday at the large Soviet school. – A stone-age hotel on the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan that is now her home.
“I don’t want anyone to see what I saw,” she added, thinking about the shootings, hunger, turmoil and suffering she witnessed before she fled to Armenia.
The 24-hour Azerbaijani attack in Karabakh came amid a siege imposed on the enclave last December. It is not clear exactly what happened before the Karabakh leadership agreed to a ceasefire. Azerbaijan says civilians were not harmed.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought wars over the enclave for 30 years – with Azerbaijan reclaiming vast swaths of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in a six-week conflict in 2020.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that the rights of Armenians would be respected, but said that his “iron fist” had consigned the idea of creating an independent state of ethnic Armenian Karabakh to history and that the region would turn into a “paradise.”
Karabakh Armenians told Reuters that they do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan and fear ethnic cleansing at the hands of Azerbaijan, which has repeatedly denied such allegations and described them as nonsense.
Some took down statues of their heroes
Fire and diplomacy
As thousands rushed to leave, a large explosion occurred at a fuel depot in the Askeran district of Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, according to local authorities. It was not clear why.
Details were conflicting about the outcome of the explosion, but ethnic Armenian authorities said that at least 68 people were killed, 105 were missing, and about 300 people were injured.
The seriously injured were evacuated by helicopter to Armenia, where busy roads were so congested with traffic that the just 77 kilometers (48 miles) trip to the border took at least 30 hours.
The Nagorno-Karabakh crisis led to a change in alliances in the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnicities located between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea where Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran compete for influence.
Armenia, allied with Russia, has sparred openly with Moscow, which in turn warned Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is facing calls to resign, to stop courting the West.
The United States, home to the world’s second-largest Armenian community after Russia, has sent senior officials to Armenia to show its support.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asked Azerbaijani President Aliyev on Tuesday to “stress the need for Azerbaijan to refrain from further hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh and provide unhindered humanitarian access.”
“The Minister urged President Aliyev to commit to a comprehensive amnesty and allow an international monitoring mission to be sent to Nagorno-Karabakh,” Miller said.
Aliyev told Blinken, “Only military installations were targeted during the anti-terrorism measures, which lasted less than 24 hours, and civilians were not harmed,” according to a statement issued by the Azerbaijani presidential office.
“President Ilham Aliyev stressed that the relevant activities are underway to ensure the rights of the Armenian population living in the Karabakh region,” the statement read.
(This story has been refiled to fix a typo in the word “lightning” in paragraph 1)
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge) Editing by Philippa Fletcher
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