Lachin Corridor, Azerbaijan – Azerbaijani border guards on Tuesday sought out “war crime” suspects among the Armenian refugees flooding out of Nagorno-Karabakh after Baku claimed control of the separatist statelet in a lightning offensive last week.
The number of people who entered Armenia following the operation surpassed 28,000, a day after a massive fuel blast on the edge of the separatist stronghold of Stepanakert killed at least 68 people, local authorities said.
Most of the victims were stocking up on fuel for the trip along a twisting mountain road that offers the historically disputed region its lone link to Armenia.
Yerevan has warned of possible “ethnic cleansing” by Azerbaijan — a close ally of Armenia’s arch-nemesis Turkey — after Baku launched a 24-hour blitz that forced the rebels to agree to disarm last Wednesday.
Predominantly Christian Armenia and overwhelmingly Muslim Azerbaijan have fought two deadly wars over the territory since the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse.
The area is now populated by up to 120,000 ethnic Armenians but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
The bad blood between the sides has been aggravated by memories of alleged wartime massacres of civilians and human rights abuses.
An AFP team allowed to access the refugees’ route to Armenia, on a tour organised by the Azerbaijani government, saw that most of the people crossing the border were women with children and the elderly.
The few Armenian men in their 20s and 30s coming out Tuesday were forced to stare into a camera for identification at the last Azerbaijani border post.
“Azerbaijan intends to apply an amnesty to Armenian fighters who laid down their arms in Karabakh,” an Azerbaijani government source told AFP.
“But those who committed war crimes during the Karabakh wars must be handed over to us,” the source said.
– ‘We fought well’ –
AFP reporters on both sides of the border saw hundreds of cars piled high with belongings moving slowly along the jam-packed road.
Some of the vehicles crept along on flat tyres, while many other people simply walked through the last Azerbaijani checkpoint.
“They expelled us,” one man said as he walked past the Azerbaijani soldiers.
Yanik Zakaryan, a 37-year-old who said he took part in last week’s fighting, was resting on the Armenian side of the border.
He said he was thankful for the Russian peacekeepers patrolling the region since Azerbaijan clawed back swathes of territory in a six-week war in 2020.
“We fought well, but at one point we found ourselves surrounded,” Zakaryan told AFP. “The Russians came to get us out.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice on Tuesday to international calls for the two sides to respect human rights and take care of the displaced.
During a call with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged “unconditional protections and freedom of movement for civilians”, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
– ‘Horrific, painful burns’ –
The humanitarian drama was heightened by a blast late Monday that rocked a fuel depot thronged by crowds of refugees.
The separatist government on Tuesday said the huge fireball injured 290 people, while 105 others were still unaccounted for.
Azerbaijan allowed Red Cross teams to rush in ambulances to help treat the victims — and allowed Armenia to evacuate 67 people by helicopter to a burn centre in Yerevan.
“This is an absolute tragedy for hundreds of people now suffering from horrific, painful burns,” International Committee of the Red Cross regional director Ariane Bauer said.
The victims’ treatment was being complicated by shortages of medication resulting from a nine-month blockade Azerbaijan had imposed to bring the region to heel.
– Stay or go? –
Envoys from Baku and Yerevan were in Brussels on Tuesday to prepare the first meeting between their leaders since last week’s offensive, set for October 5.
The separatists said Tuesday that 208 people had died in the fighting.
The sides have since held two rounds of closed-door talks mediated by Russia focused on putting the region under Baku’s control.
But Azerbaijan’s forces have still not entered Stepanakert or fully disarmed all the rebel fighters.
Many civilians in the region appeared to be tormented by debates — some of them spilling onto social media — on whether to stay or go.
Some said they could not live under the authority of Azerbaijanis, while others argue that leaving now means Armenians might never be able to return.
Sveta Moussaylyan said this was the fourth time she had been forced to move because of the decades of strife and changes in control over tiny hamlets.
“I’m not that old, but I’ve already seen so much!” the 50-year-old said.