The first hundreds of refugees from war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh have crossed the border into Armenian territory, as a historic evacuation begins that could lead to a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians as Azerbaijan appears on the verge of take control of the separatist region.
They are the first civilians to cross the Nagorno-Karabakh border into Armenia in almost a year, reuniting with their families after 10 months of blockade and an intensive military offensive by Azerbaijan this week that left hundreds dead, injured or missing.
Rima Elizbaryan and her two daughters crossed the border early in the afternoon and were greeted by her brother who was waiting for them with chocolates and sweets.
It was the first time they had seen each other in almost a year, and the family hugged and cried as they prepared to go to a relative’s house near the town of Goris, near the border.
“I’m so happy right now,” Elizbaryan said. His brother said: “I always knew they would come, I knew they would be fine. »
Officials with Armenia’s separatist government in Nagorno-Karabakh said they planned to evacuate thousands of displaced people from the region to Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s blockade of the territory has led to desperate shortages of food, fuel and water in the local capital, Stepanakert, and surrounding areas.
The local ethnic Armenian government called on Azerbaijan to open the road along the Lachin corridor to Armenia to allow humanitarian aid to enter Nagorno-Karabakh and the local population to enter. to go out. Many fear a campaign of ethnic cleansing when Azerbaijani authorities take control.
The local government said the evacuees would be accompanied across the border from the disputed region into Armenia by Russian peacekeepers.
“Dear compatriots, we would like to inform you that, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, the families who found themselves homeless as a result of recent military operations and who expressed their desire to leave will be transferred to Armenia” , we can read in a press release. “The government will soon publish information on the relocation of other population groups.”
Local officials in the breakaway state, also known as Artsakh, said earlier they planned to evacuate an estimated population of more than 120,000 people to Armenia after Azerbaijan published plans to “reintegrate” the territory.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region that many Armenians consider their ancestral homeland, but which is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. It has been governed by a local Armenian government since the early 1990s. The government is now on the verge of collapse following a ceasefire with Azerbaijan.
Local authorities prepared for the evacuation. A Guardian journalist was stopped by police at a new checkpoint near the Armenia-Nagorno-Karabakh border and told that access to the road was now blocked due to plans to evacuation.
The Armenian government said it was ready to welcome 120,000 ethnic Armenian compatriots and that it was likely they would leave soon. The first refugees came from the region near Shusha, where Armenian towns and villages were surrounded as Azerbaijani forces launched a new offensive this week.
“Our government will lovingly welcome our brothers and sisters from Nagorno-Karabakh,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a live speech on Sunday.
“Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing,” he said. “Humanitarian supplies have arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent days, but this does not change the situation.
“If real living conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in their homes and if effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing are not created, then it is increasingly likely that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh -Karabakh consider expulsion from their homeland as the only possible outcome. out.”
He criticized a Russian-dominated security bloc of which Armenia is a member, saying the Collective Security Treaty Organization had been “ineffective” in preventing further violence.
It is not yet clear how many people might be evacuated from Nagorno-Karabakh in the coming days, but large hotels in the nearby town of Goris have been fully booked by the government in order to accommodate the upcoming influx of people, hotel employees. said.
Russian peacekeepers said nearly 800 displaced people, many of whom fled small villages and towns attacked by Azerbaijan during its offensive this week, are living at an airport used by the mission as a base.
Tens of thousands more people are believed to be stuck in Stepanakert, which hosted thousands of displaced people who fled to the city after the new wave of violence.
The refugees were transported by bus from Nagorno-Karabakh to a government tent camp near the border, with signs calling on the Azerbaijani government to open the Lachin corridor. There they were registered, offered accommodation in local hotels and also given access to psychological help. One boy burst into tears as medical staff spoke to him.
“If you are going to Goris, please walk to the center of the tent camp,” an official shouted through a megaphone, leading to a small melee to board a minibus. Others left Karabakh in private cars, some carrying bags with all their belongings tied to the roofs.