Over 93,000 Armenians have now fled disputed enclave Nagorno-Karabakh

(LONDON) — Over 93,000 ethnic Armenian refugees have fled Nagorno-Karabakh as of Friday, local authorities said, meaning 75% of the disputed enclave’s entire population has now left in less than a week.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have been streaming out of Nagorno-Karabakh following Azerbaijan’s successful military operation last week that restored its control over the breakaway region. It’s feared the whole population will likely leave in the coming days, in what Armenia has condemned as “ethnic cleansing.”

Families packed into cars and trucks, with whatever belongings they can carry, have been arriving in Armenia after Azerbaijan opened the only road out of the enclave on Sunday. Those fleeing have said they are unwilling to live under Azerbaijan’s rule, fearing they will face persecution.

“There will be no more Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh in the coming days,” Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a televised government meeting on Thursday. “This is a direct act of ethnic cleansing,” he said, adding that international statements condemning it were important but without concrete actions they were just “creating moral statistics for history.”

The United States and other western countries have expressed concern about the displacement of the Armenian population from the enclave, urging Azerbaijan to allow international access.

Armenians have lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for centuries but the enclave is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan. It has been at the center of a bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the late 1980s when the two former Soviet countries fought a war amid the collapse of the USSR.

That war left ethnic Armenian separatists in control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh and also saw hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani civilians driven out. For three decades, an unrecognised Armenian state, called the Republic of Artsakh, existed in the enclave, while international diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict went nowhere.

But in 2020, Azerbaijan reopened the conflict, decisively defeating Armenia and forcing it to abandon its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia brokered a truce and deployed peacekeeping forces, which remain there.

Last week, after blockading the enclave for 9 months, Azerbaijan launched a new military offensive to complete the defeat of the ethnic Armenian authorities, forcing them to capitulate in just two days.

The leader of the ethnic Armenian’s unrecognised state, the Republic of Artsakh, on Thursday announced its dissolution, saying it would “cease to exist” by the end of the year.

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev has claimed the Karabakh Armenians’ rights will be protected but he has previously promoted a nationalist narrative denying Armenians have a long history in the region. In areas recaptured by his forces in 2020, some Armenian cultural sites have been destroyed and defaced.

Some Azerbaijanis driven from their homes during the war in the 1990s have returned to areas recaptured by Azerbaijan since 2020. Aliyev on Thursday said by the end of 2023, 5,500 displaced Azerbaijanis would return to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the Russian state news agency TASS.

Azerbaijan on Friday detained another former senior Karabakh Armenian official on Thursday as he tried to leave the enclave with other refugees. Azerbaijan’s security services detained Levon Mnatsakanyan, who was commander of the Armenian separatists’ armed forces between 2015-2018. Earlier this week, Azerbaijan arrested a former leader of the unrecognised state, Ruben Vardanyan, taking him to Baku and charging him with terrorism offenses.

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