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Nagorno-Karabakh: Nearly 100,000 ethnic Armenians flee strife-torn region ahead of dissolution

Many of the ethnic Armenians fleeing the conflict-ridden Nagorno-Karabakh region have died due to hunger, exhaustion and continuous travel. The United Nations will send a mission to provide humanitarian assistance.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Yerevan Published on: September 30, 2023 17:44 IST
Ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno Karabakh
Image Source : AP Ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno Karabakh

After a mass exodus following Azerbaijan's victory in reclaiming the strife-torn Nagorno Karabakh region, the Armenian government said that close to 100,000 people, comprising ethnic Armenians, have fled the breakaway area.

According to the Armenian government, over 97,700 people have fled to Armenia since Azerbaijan ordered the militants of the region to surrender. The Nagorno-Karabakh area is set to dissolve by the end of this year after seeking independence for around three decades.

Some people, including elderly citizens, have died on their way to Armenia due to perilous conditions including exhaustion from malnutrition and spending time on the road for over 40 hours, said Armenian Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) also stated that 100,000 people had fled from Nagorno-Karabakh, stating that many of those fleeing "are hungry, exhausted and need immediate assistance", reported BBC. The UN will now send a mission to the region to provide humanitarian assistance after being allowed by Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has assured that the rights of the ethnic Armenians in the region would be respected, but most of them are still fleeing in fear of reprisals and a lack of trust in Azerbaijani authorities for fair and humane treatment for them or their language and culture.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called the exodus a "direct act of ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their homeland". Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry denied the accusations and said that it was their "personal decision" that was not linked with forced relocation.

Over 170 people killed in fuel depot explosion

Amid the exodus of ethnic Armenians, a massive explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh's Khankendi (called Stepankart by Armenians) claimed the lives of at least 170 people earlier this week. Hundreds of people were injured and hospitalised in the aftermath of the blast.

The explosion took place as the people arrived at the station to refuel their cars in order to leave the region. The reason of the blast has not been ascertained yet.

According to Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities, dozens of people were lining up at the fuel facility where the blast occurred because they had been promised fuel — a scarcity during the blockade — for their cars in order to move to Armenia.

The blast came hours after Azerbaijani officials and separatist representatives held the second round of talks in Khojaly near the capital, where they discussed humanitarian aid to the region and medical services.

How the conflict unfolded?

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces till 2020, was struck by what Azerbaijan forces call an "anti-terrorist" operation involving heavy artillery firing. 

"Positions on the front line and in-depth, long-term firing points of the formations of Armenia’s armed forces, as well as combat assets and military facilities, are incapacitated using high-precision weapons," said Azerbaijan's defence ministry. Armenian officials there said many villages came under intense shelling.

The ensuing operation killed at least 200 ethnic Armenians and dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers. A ceasefire was negotiated between both sides with Armenian separatists agreeing to surrender their weapons after 24 hours of intense fighting.

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region in the Caucasus Mountains and is home to around 120,000 ethnic Armenians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Armenians took control over the region in 1994 after a bloody war. However, the region was recaptured by Azerbaijan in 2020 in a six-week war.

Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan's sovereign territory. The armistice was brokered by a Russian peacekeeper contingent in the region. 

However, Azerbaijan alleges that Armenia has smuggled in weapons since then. The claims led to a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in December last year, causing severe food and medicine shortages in the region. The blockade also prevented humanitarian assistance during Azerbaijan's military offensive this week.

In the 1990s, the Azerbaijani population was itself expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within Azerbaijan. Many people have been relocated to recaptured territories in Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan's "Great Return" programme.

(with AP inputs)

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