GORIS, Armenia — Thousands of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh streamed into Armenia on Monday, as the presidents of Azerbaijan and ally Turkey held a summit marking Baku's victory over the rebel enclave last week.
While Azerbaijan showcased its regional support, 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 on Sunday and 4,850 people have so far entered, Yerevan said on Monday.
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 marked by forced displacement on both sides in the last three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognised border of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan launched a lightning operation on September 19 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 a nine-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 soliders also died when a mine hit their vehicle on Sunday.
Azerbaijan’s state media said officials were holding 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 snarling up 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”.
Pashinyan faces protests
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev cemented his victory by holding talks in his country’s western exclave of Nakhichevan with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his most important regional ally.
A smiling Aliyev kissed Erdogan on both cheeks as he descended from his plane.
Armenia’s premier on Sunday sought to deflect blame for the outcome on long-standing ally Russia, signalling a breakdown in the countries’ security pact.
Moscow on Monday said it “categorically” disagreed with the criticism of its peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“We will never accept such accusations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, 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.
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 Monday.
‘Accept our citizenship’
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 him.
“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.”