Armenia says more than 100,000 people fled Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says exodus amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing’, a claim Azerbaijan strongly rejects.

An ethnic Armenian exodus has nearly emptied Nagorno-Karabakh of residents since Azerbaijan attacked and ordered the breakaway region’s fighter groups to disarm, the Armenian government has said.

Nazeli Baghdasaryan, the press secretary to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said on Saturday that 100,417 people had arrived in Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, which had a population of approximately 120,000 before Azerbaijan reclaimed the region in a lightning offensive last week.

A total of 21,043 vehicles have crossed the Hakari Bridge, which links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, since last week, Baghdasaryan said. Some lined up for days because the winding mountain road that is the only route to Armenia became jammed.

“The speed of it has caught everyone, including the Armenian authorities and the UN by surprise,” said Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith.

The departure of more than 80 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population raises questions about Azerbaijan’s plans for the enclave that was internationally recognised as part of its territory.

“[In Nagorno-Karabakh] we’re seeing scenes of eerie silence, empty streets, empty shops, and vacant homes,” said Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Horadiz. “Just a fraction of the population remains in this enclave where people have been assured that they will not be persecuted by Azerbaijani forces as they take control of these areas.”

The region’s separatist ethnic Armenian government said Thursday it would dissolve itself by the end of the year after a three-decade bid for independence.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Pashinyan has alleged the ethnic Armenian exodus amounted to “a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland”.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly rejected the characterisation, saying the mass migration by the region’s residents was “their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation”.

However, Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former ICC chief prosecutor, told Al Jazeera that it is “obvious” what is happening is ethnic cleansing, saying that “the legal description is called genocide.”

“It’s an excuse that the Azerbaijan government saying, ‘oh, [leaving] was voluntary’ after they were bombing them and were starving them to death for months,” Ocampo said.

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh sit next to their belongings near a tent camp after arriving to Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Armenian officials say that by Friday evening over 97,700 people had left Nagorno-Karabakh. The region's population was around 120,000 before the exodus began. (AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov)
Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh sit next to their belongings near a tent camp after arriving at Armenia’s Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 [Vasily Krestyaninov/AP Photo]

During three decades of conflict in the region, Azerbaijan and the separatists backed by Armenia have accused each other of targeted attacks, massacres and other atrocities, leaving people on both sides deeply suspicious and fearful.

While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, most are fleeing because they do not trust Azerbaijani authorities to treat them humanely or guarantee their language, religion and culture.

“None of the people we’ve spoken to have confidence in the Azerbaijan government’s claim that their security would be guaranteed if they decided to stay,” said Smith, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Yerevan.

“They’re frightened because they fear, despite Azerbaijan’s assurances, they fear they will be treated as the losers and the Azerbaijanis will come in as the victors,” he said.

The office of Italy’s prime minister said on Saturday that Armenia has asked the European Union for assistance to help it deal with refugees arriving from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Years of fighting

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence said later on Saturday that one of its servicemen was killed by sniper fire from Armenian forces in the border district of Kalbajar, but the alleged incident was swiftly refuted by Armenia.

Interfax news agency cited the Armenian Ministry of Defence as saying the report was incorrect, without giving further details.

After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia. Then, during a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the South Caucasus Mountains along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier.

In December, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, accusing the Armenian government of using it for illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.

Weakened by the blockade and with Armenia’s leadership distancing itself from the conflict, ethnic Armenian forces in the region agreed to lay down arms less than 24 hours after Azerbaijan began its offensive. Talks have begun between officials in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities on “reintegrating” the region into Azerbaijan.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies