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First refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh arrive in Armenia following Azerbaijan’s military offensive

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The first refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have arrived in Armenia, local officials reported on Sunday, after Azerbaijan imposed a 10-month blockade on the breakaway region and conducted a lightning military offensive there, reclaiming full control of the region as a result.

Thousands of people were evacuated from cities and villages affected by the latest fighting and taken to a Russian peacekeepers’ camp in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Armenian government said late on Sunday that a total of 1,050 people had crossed into the country from Nagorno-Karabakh.

“As of 22:00, 1050 people entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh,” the government said in a statement.

Ethnic Armenians from the first group of about 30 people from Nagorno-Karabakh wait to be temporarily checked into a hotel in Goris, a town in Syunik region, Armenia on Sunday. Photo: AP

Reuters eyewitnesses at the border said Nagorno-Karabakh residents with access to a car and fuel were leaving the region in large numbers.

Russia’s Defence Ministry reported that its peacekeepers, who were deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, helped transport 311 civilians, including 102 children. The conflicting numbers could not be immediately reconciled.

“It was a nightmare. There are no words to describe. The village was heavily shelled. Almost no one is left in the village,” one of the evacuees said in the Armenian city of Kornidzor.

She refused to give her name for security reasons. “I have an old grandmother’s house here in Tegh village [in the Syunik region of Armenia]. I will live there until we see what happens next.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is located in Azerbaijan and came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994.

During a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with territory surrounding the region that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.

What to know about the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

A Russia-brokered armistice ended the war, and a contingent of about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region to monitor it. Parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that were not retaken by Azerbaijan remained under the control of the separatist authorities.

In December, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging that the Armenian government was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the province’s separatist forces.

Armenia charged that the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s roughly 120,000 people.

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.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan delivering his address to the nation in Yerevan, Armenia on Sunday. Photo: EPA-EFE / Armenian Government Press Service / Handout

On Tuesday, Azerbaijan launched heavy artillery fire against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, who conceded to demands to lay down their arms the next day.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status remains an open question, however, and is at the centre of talks between the sides that began on Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an address to the nation on Sunday that his government was working “with international partners to form international mechanisms to ensure the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, but if these efforts do not produce concrete results, the government will welcome our sisters and brothers of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Republic of Armenia with all the care”.

Azerbaijan seizes arms from Nagorno-Karabakh rebels

The events in Nagorno-Karabakh have sparked a days-long wave of protests in Armenia, where demonstrators accused Pashinyan and the Russian peacekeepers of failing to protect the region’s Armenian population.

Hundreds of people gathered again on Sunday in the centre of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, to demand Pashinyan’s removal.

As part of a ceasefire agreement reached last week, the separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh started surrendering tanks, air defence systems and other weapons to the Azerbaijani army. As of Sunday, the process of surrendering arms was still under way, the Azerbaijani military said.

Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry said on Sunday that disarmed and demobilised Armenian troops would be allowed to leave the region and go to Armenia.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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