Nagorno-Karabakh: Ethnic Armenians leave amid cleansing fear

People, including Armenian service members and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region, gather at a checkpoint in the village of Kornidzor, Armenia, 24 September 2023.Reuters

The first group of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh have arrived in Armenia, days after the enclave was seized by Azerbaijan.

They entered shortly after local officials announced plans to move those made homeless by the fighting.

Azerbaijan captured the area inhabited by some 120,000 ethnic Armenians early this week and says it wants to re-integrate them as “equal citizens”.

But Armenia has warned they may face ethnic cleansing.

Around 40 people were part of the first group to leave. Armenia says it will help anyone who leaves but has repeatedly said a mass exodus would be the fault of the Azerbaijani authorities.

In a TV address on Sunday, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashanyan said that many inside the enclave would “see expulsion from the homeland as the only way out” unless Azerbaijan provided “real living conditions” and “effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing”.

He repeated that his government was prepared to “lovingly welcome our brothers and sisters”.

But David Babayan, an adviser to Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leader Samvel Shahramanyan, told Reuters he expected almost everyone to leave.

His people “do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan – 99.9% prefer to leave our historic lands”, he said.

“The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilised world,” he told Reuters.

“Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins.”

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Nagorno-Karabakh – a mountainous region in the South Caucasus – is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan, but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for three decades.

The enclave has been supported by Armenia – but also by their ally, Russia, which has had hundreds of soldiers there for years.

Five Russian peacekeepers were killed – alongside at least 200 ethnic Armenians and dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers – as Azerbaijan’s army swept in earlier this week.

Despite Azerbaijan’s public reassurances, there are ongoing fears about the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, with only one aid delivery of 70 tonnes of food having been allowed through since separatists accepted a ceasefire and agreed to disarm.

Ethnic Armenian leaders say thousands are without food or shelter and sleeping in basements, school buildings or outside.

In his TV address, the Armenian prime minister also hinted that Russia had not come to its defence in the conflict.

His comments echoed criticism that Moscow had effectively handed Nagorno-Karabakh over to Azerbaijan – a charge Russia’s foreign minister has described as “ludicrous”.

“Yerevan and Baku actually did settle the situation,” Sergei Lavrov told the UN General Assembly. “Time has come for mutual trust-building.

Armenia-Azerbaijan: Nagorno-Karabakh map

Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, showing areas of the former autonomous region where Russian peacekeeping forces operate. The map also highlights some of the cities in the area and the Lachin corridor, which, though not a part of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, is to remain under the control of Russian peacekeepers to act as a connection with Armenia for ethnic-Armenian population in the region. Another map shows where Nagorno-Karabakh is located in the South Caucasus region of southeast Europe and Asia.

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