More than 13,000 people fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh have arrived in Armenia, officials said, amid a massive exodus that followed an Azerbaijani offensive that gave Baku complete control of the mountainous region.
Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, meanwhile, said that at least 20 people were killed and nearly 300 others injured by an explosion at a gas station as people seeking to flee to Armenia lined up for fuel.
The unexplained blast outside the regional capital Stepanakert occurred on September 25 amid the increasingly chaotic exodus of people from the exclave, which was under the control of ethnic Armenians until last week.
Baku has pledged equal treatment for mainly ethnic Armenian residents, but the Yerevan has warned of possible “ethnic cleansing.”
Thousands of people clogged treacherous mountainous roads heading west from the region into Armenia itself, and Armenia’s government said on September 26 that more than 13,000 people had entered the country already.
Traffic was at a standstill again on September 26 as hundreds of cars and trucks jammed the main road through the so-called Lachin Corridor, and people overwhelmed the Armenian border town of Goris.
Prior to last week, Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was estimated to be about 120,000 people, who are overwhelmingly ethnic Armenians.
Adding to humanitarian concerns, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities said 13 more bodies were found at the scene of the fuel station blast that occurred as residents were lining up to fuel their cars in order to leave the region.
Seven more people had died of injuries, and 290 were hospitalized and “dozens of patients remain in critical condition,” officials said.
Protests are continuing in Yerevan over the government’s reaction to the crisis.
Demonstrators have been blocking the streets since the early hours of September 26, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported, and the Interior Ministry said that more than 50 protesters had been detained.
Meanwhile, the United States, which has played a diminished diplomatic role in the region in recent years, called on Azerbaijan to maintain the cease-fire and “take concrete steps to protect the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, Samantha Power, the top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Baku’s use of force was unacceptable, and she called on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to protect ethnic Armenians’ rights.
She said it was “absolutely critical” that independent monitors and aid organizations be given access to people in Karabakh, and she later announced a $11.5-million package of humanitarian aid for Armenia.
In Brussels, envoys from Baku and Yerevan prepared to meet in their first such encounter since Azerbaijan’s recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s offensive followed a nine-month blockade of the region that Armenian officials said had deprived Nagorno-Karabakh residents of food, medicine, and other essentials.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.
The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
That fighting ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.
One of Armenia’s few reliable trading partners is Iran, which has long served as a conduit for natural gas and other goods essential for the landlocked South Caucasus nation. Iran also shares a border with Azerbaijan, and a sizable ethnic Azeri minority lives in northwestern Iran.
Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, discussed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh in a phone call with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on September 26, the Kremlin said. The two presidents “emphasized the importance of resolving all issues exclusively through peaceful, political and diplomatic means,” the Kremlin said in a statement.