Half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population flees in ‘ethnic cleansing, Armenian government says

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YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh said Thursday it will dissolve itself and the unrecognized republic will cease to exist by year’s end after a three-decade bid for independence, while Armenian officials said over half of the region’s population has already fled.

The moves came after Azerbaijan carried out a lightning offensive last week to reclaim full control over the region and demanded that Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh disarm and the separatist government dissolve itself.

READ MORE: Dozens dead in gas station explosion as Nagorno-Karabakh residents flee to Armenia

A decree signed by the region’s separatist President Samvel Shakhramanyan cited an agreement reached Sept. 20 to end the fighting under which Azerbaijan will allow the “free, voluntary and unhindered movement” of Nagorno-Karabakh residents to Armenia.

Some of those who fled the regional capital of Stepanakert said they had no hope for the future.

“I left Stepanakert having a slight hope that maybe something will change and I will come back soon, and these hopes are ruined after reading about the dissolution of our government,” said Ani Abaghyan, a 21-year-old student, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lawyer Anush Shahramanyan, 30, added: “We can never go back to our homes without having an independent government in Artaskh,” referring to Nagorno-Karabakh by its Armenian name.

The mass exodus of ethnic Armenians from the mountainous region inside Azerbaijan began on Sunday. By Thursday morning, over 70,000 people — more than half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population of 120,000 — had fled to Armenia, and the influx continued with unabating intensity, according to Armenian officials.

After separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenia. Then, during a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the south Caucasus Mountains along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier.

Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.

In December, Azerbaijan imposed blockaded the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging the Armenian government was using it illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.

Armenia alleged the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.

Weakened by the blockade, with Armenia’s leadership distancing itself from the conflict, ethnic Armenian forces in the region agreed to lay down arms less than 24 hours after Azerbaijan began its offensive last week. Talks have begun between Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities on “reintegrating” the region back into Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani authorities have pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region and restore supplies.

Many residents, however, have decided to leave for Armenia, fearing reprisals. The only road link to Armenia quickly filled with cars, creating a massive traffic jam on the winding mountain road.

It took Abaghyan, the student, three days to get to Armenia from Stepanakert, a distance of about 50 miles (80 kilometers).
Shahramanyan spent 30 hours on the road and still had half the journey ahead of her Thursday.

She said that for her and her family, living in Nagorno-Karabakh will be impossible under Azerbaijan rule because she believes their basic rights will be violated.

“No power in the world is willing to stop the atrocities of Azerbaijan. What can any Armenian hope for under the control of that genocidal state?” she said.(backslash)

Azerbaijan’s military last week accused Nagorno-Karabakh residents of burning down their homes in Martakert, a town in the north of the region that until the last week’s offensive remained under the control of ethnic Armenian forces. Their claims could not be independently verified. But that is something that also happened in 2020 when people fled territories taken over by Azerbaijan.

On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a gas station where people lined up for gas that was in short supply from the blockade. At least 68 people were killed and nearly 300 injured, with over 100 others still considered missing.

It isn’t immediately clear if the ethnic Armenians still living in the region will remain there. Shakhramanyan’s decree urged Nagorno-Karabakh’s population — including those who left — “to familiarize themselves with the conditions of reintegration offered by the Republic of Azerbaijan, in order to then make an individual decision about the possibility of staying in (or returning to) Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday also urged the Armenian population of the region “not to leave their places of residence and become part of the multinational Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijani authorities said they are sending 30 buses to Stepanakert at the request of “the Armenian residents” for those who don’t have cars but want to go to Armenia.

In Yerevan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that “in the coming days, there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

“This is a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland, exactly what we’ve telling the international community about,” he said.

In a statement, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said it “strongly” rejected Pashinyan’s accusations.

“Pashinyan knows well enough that the current departure of Armenians from Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region is their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation,” the ministry said. “With this alarming narrative, the Armenian prime minister is seeking to disrupt Azerbaijan’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and the reintegration process, and also undermines possible prospects for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia.”

Armenia has set up two main centers in the cities of Goris and Vayk to register and assess the needs of those fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. The government is offering accommodations to anyone who doesn’t have a place to stay, although only 13,922 of the 70,500 people who have crossed into the country — under 20% — applied for it.

“The accommodation suggested by the government is mostly in the border villages, where people face serious security issues due to the periodic shootings by Azerbaijan. Besides, finding a job is difficult,” said Tatevik Khachatrian, who arrived Thursday. She said she and her family will stay with relatives in Yerevan before trying to rent an apartment.

On Thursday, Azerbaijani authorities charged Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government, with financing terrorism, creating illegal armed formations and illegally crossing a state border. Vardanyan, a billionaire banker, who was arrested on Wednesday, faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted, according to Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti. He was placed in pre-trial detention for at least four months, according to Azerbaijani media.

Azerbaijani officials said Vardanyan, who made his fortune in Russia, was detained as he was trying to enter Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh along with thousands of others and taken to Baku. The arrest appeared to indicate Azerbaijan’s intent to quickly enforce its grip on the region.

Vardanyan moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022 and headed the regional government for several months before stepping down earlier this year.

Another top separatist figure, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and now presidential adviser David Babayan, said Thursday he will surrender to Azerbaijani authorities after they “demanded my arrival in Baku for a proper investigation.” Babayan said in a Facebook post that he will head from Stepanakert, the region’s capital, to the nearby city of Shusha, which has been under Azerbaijani control since 2020.

“My failure to appear, or worse, my escape, will cause serious harm to our long-suffering people, to many people, and I, as an honest person, hard worker, patriot and a Christian, cannot allow this,” Babayan said.

Associated Press writers Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, and Aida Sultanova in London contributed.

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