More than 53,000 people from Nagorno-Karabakh population have fled into Armenia since Azerbaijan launched an attack on the breakaway region last week, according to Armenia’s government.
A proportion approaching half the region’s population of 120,000 people has scrambled to flee as soon as Azerbaijan lifted a 10-month blockade on the region’s only road to Armenia. That blockade had caused severe shortages of food, medicine and fuel, and many residents fearing reprisals have already fled.
The updated figures came as the death toll from an explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh rose to 68, with a further 105 people missing and nearly 300 injured, the office of Karabakh’s ombudsman said.
The explosion took place as people lined up to fill their cars at a gas station outside Stepanakert, the region’s capital, late Monday. The cause of the blast remains unclear, but Nagorno-Karabakh presidential aide David Babayan said initial information suggested that it resulted from negligence, adding that sabotage was unlikely.
Armenian authorities also said that they brought 125 bodies over to Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh for identification. The country’s Health Ministry clarified that all of those were killed in the fighting last week.
Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said on X, formerly Twitter, that hospitals in Azerbaijan were ready to treat victims, but did not say if any had been taken there.
Azerbaijan detained a former leader of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh government in its first high profile arrest since launching a lightning offensive last week that it said would lead to a “reintegration” of the territory into Azerbaijan.
Ruben Vardanyan, a wealthy businessman who had served as the state minister of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic, was detained as he tried to cross the border into Armenia on Wednesday morning, as one of more than 50,000 Armenians who have fled the region to avoid incoming Azerbaijani control.
Vardanyan made his fortune in investment banking in Russia before moving to the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh republic in 2022, where he was appointed state minister. He was dismissed in February 2023, but remained a prominent figure in the region, which many Armenians call Artsakh.
In an interview with the Guardian last week before his arrest, he said that he knew he would be a target for Azerbaijani forces when the war started last week.
“It’s life,” he said. “If you are ready to die for your country, then it’s ok. It’s bad but something you have to be ready for if you’re doing something important... the end of the story can be very bad. And i was ready for it the first day, I knew it.”
The Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz last week.
Fuel has been in short supply in Stepanakert for months, and the depot explosion further added to the shortages, compounding anxiety among many residents about whether they would be able to drive the 35 kilometres to the border.
On Tuesday, cars bearing large loads on their roofs crowded the streets of Stepanakert, and residents stood or lay along sidewalks next to heaps of luggage.