More than 6,000 ethnic Armenians have crossed into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh after last week’s Azerbaijani military offensive in the disputed region, which left hundreds of people dead, wounded or missing.
The Armenian government said on Monday afternoon at least 6,650 people from Nagorno-Karabakh had crossed into Armenia, up from about 4,850 people five hours earlier. Video showed a heavily congested road to Armenia from the enclave.
Refugees began crossing over from Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday, becoming the first civilians to reach Armenia in nearly a year and reuniting families after a 10-month blockade by Azerbaijan that has led to desperate shortages of food, fuel and water in the local capital, Stepanakert, and surrounding areas.
One of the evacuees among the first few hundred described the situation as a nightmare.
“There are no words to describe [it],” they told the Associated Press. “The village was heavily shelled. Almost no one is left in the village.”
Officials in the breakaway Armenian government in the region have said they plan to evacuate thousands of displaced people from there into Armenia.
The local government said evacuees would be accompanied across the border into Armenia by Russian peacekeepers.
“Dear compatriots, we would like to inform you that, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, the families who were left homeless as a result of the recent military operations and expressed their desire to leave will be transferred to Armenia,” a statement read.
“The government will issue information about the relocation of other population groups in the near future.”
Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said in a live address on Sunday: “Our government will lovingly welcome our brothers and sisters from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing. Humanitarian supplies have arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent days but this does not change the situation.
“If real living conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in their homes, and effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing, then the likelihood is increasing that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see expulsion from their homeland as the only way out.”
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh – a territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but previously beyond its control – were forced into a ceasefire last week after a 24-hour military operation by the much-larger Azerbaijani military.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the enclave in 30 years – with Azerbaijan regaining swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in a six-week conflict in 2020.
Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev hosted his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday in the autonomous Nakhchivan exclave - a strip of Azerbaijani territory separated from the rest of the country by Armenia. Last week, Erdoğan – an ally of Aliyev who backed Azerbaijan with weaponry in the 2020 conflict – said he supported the aims of Azerbaijan’s latest military operation but had played no part in it.
Senior US officials, including Samantha Power, the head of the US Agency for International Development, and Yuri Kim, the state department’s acting assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasian affairs meanwhile visited Armenia as the Armenian government rowed openly with Russia - all signs of shifts in the wider geopolitical landscape that form the backdrop to the crisis.
“The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organisations and commercial traffic,” said a statement ahead of the trip.
Armenia says more than 200 people were killed and 400 wounded in last week’s operation, which was condemned by the US and other western allies of Armenia.
On Sunday, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said it had confiscated more military equipment from Armenian separatists, including rockets, artillery shells, mines and ammunition.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians do not accept Azerbaijan’s promise to guarantee their rights as the region is integrated. Armenia has called for an immediate deployment of a UN mission to monitor human rights and security in the region.
“Ninety-nine point nine per cent prefer to leave our historic lands,” David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the breakaway state, which is also known as Artsakh, told Reuters. -Guardian/Agencies