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Over 13,300 refugees flee into Armenia after Azerbaijan retakes disputed enclave

LAST UPDATE | 28 minutes ago

ROUGHLY 13,350 REFUGEES have arrived in Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh – a majority ethnic Armenian breakaway enclave that was retaken by Azerbaijan last week – as Armenia’s Prime Minister has warned that ethnic cleansing is “underway” in the disputed region. 

“As of September 26 8:00am, 13,350 forcibly displaced persons entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh,” the Armenian government said in a statement.

Karabakh separatists have said that 20 people were killed in a fuel blast at a warehouse. 

The explosion happened at a fuel storage facility as residents were queueing up to get fuel for their cars in order to leave the region.

The Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman said that over 200 people were injured in the blast. 

The majority of the victims were in “severe or extremely severe” condition, Mr Stepanyan said yesterday, adding that the victims would need to be airlifted out of the region for medical treatment to save their lives.

Separatist authorities lay down weapons

The Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz last week, forcing the separatist authorities to agree to lay down weapons and start talks on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan after three decades of separatist rule.

While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region and restore supplies after a 10-month blockade, many local residents feared reprisals and decided to leave for Armenia.

The leaders of Azerbaijan and ally Turkey hailed Baku’s victory over the rebel enclave at a summit yesterday. 

While Azerbaijan showcased its regional alliances, Russia hit back at embattled Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan after he blamed Moscow for the swift defeat of the breakaway territory.

Several days after the fighting, the first refugees arrived in Armenia yesterday and 6,650 people have so far entered, Yerevan said.

AFP reporters saw the refugees crowding into a humanitarian hub set up in a local theatre in the city of Goris to register for transport and housing.

“We lived through terrible days,” said Anabel Ghulasyan, 41, from the village of Rev, known as Shalva in Azeri.

She arrived in Goris with her family by minibus, carrying her belongings in bags.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognised border of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan launched a military operation on 19 September to seize control of the territory, forcing the separatists to lay down their arms under the terms of a ceasefire agreed the following day.

It followed ten-month blockade of the region by Baku that caused shortages of key supplies.

The separatists have said 200 people were killed in last week’s fighting.

Baku announced two of its soldiers also died when a mine hit their vehicle on Sunday.

Azerbaijan’s state media said officials held a second round of peace talks with Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian community aimed at “reintegrating” them.

But on the road heading to Armenia, more and more residents from the region appeared to be trying to get out as the witnesses said cars were getting stuck in traffic.

At the refugee centre in Goris, Valentina Asryan, a 54-year-old from the village of Vank who fled with her grandchildren, said her brother-in-law was killed and several other people were injured by Azerbaijani fire.

“Who would have thought that the ‘Turks’ would come to this historic Armenian village? It’s incredible,” she said, referring to the Azerbaijani forces.

She was being housed temporarily in a hotel in Goris and had “nowhere to go”.

‘Huge mistake’ 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lauded Baku’s “historic success” at a meeting with Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev in the country’s western exclave of Nakhichevan.

“The window of opportunity has opened to settle the situation in the region. This opportunity must not be missed,” Erdogan said.

Aliyev vowed that the rights of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region would be “guaranteed”.

“Karabakh’s residents – regardless their ethnicity – are citizens of Azerbaijan,” he said.

Yesterday Armenia’s premier sought to deflect blame for the outcome on long-standing ally Russia, signalling a breakdown in the countries’ security pact.

“The leadership in Yerevan is making a huge mistake by deliberately trying to destroy Armenia’s multifaceted and centuries-old ties with Russia,” Russia’s foreign ministry said.

“It is an attempt to absolve himself of the responsibility for the failures in domestic and foreign policy.”

Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – a Russian-dominated group comprising six post-Soviet states that had pledged to protect each other if attacked.

Russia, bogged down in its own war in Ukraine, refused to come to Armenia’s aid, arguing that Yerevan had recognised the disputed region as part of Azerbaijan.

Now, Russian peacekeepers – six of whom died in the recent fighting – are helping Azerbaijan disarm the Karabakh rebels.

The European Union and the United States – which have been mediating between Azerbaijan and Armenia in recent months – have struggled to have an impact.

Top US aid official Samantha Power arrived in Yerevan today to stress Washington’s “strong support and partnership with Armenia”.

Brussels said it will play host to senior envoys from Azerbaijan and Armenia tomorrow, along with France and Germany.

‘Accept our citizenship’ 

Pashinyan is under pressure at home from thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh supporters who have been rallying and blocking roads in Yerevan since Wednesday’s ceasefire deal.

They plan more disruptions over three days starting today.

Meanwhile in Azerbaijan’s second city Ganja locals revelled in their government’s victory.

“If Armenians leave Karabakh, it’s okay, if they stay it’s very beautiful for them, if they accept our citizenship,” Shemil Valiyev, a 40-year-old merchant, told AFP.

He stood at a bus stop with posters of a young Azerbaijani soldier killed in the 2020 war.

Ramin Najafov, 44, echoed his view.

“It will be good if they all leave Karabakh, it’s also good if they stay and take the citizenship,” he said.

“Otherwise we’ll have again the problems.”

© AFP 2023