Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

First group of refugees brought into Armenia

- AVET DEMOURIAN Informatio­n for this article was contribute­d by Dasha Litvinova and Aida Sultanova of The Associated Press.

YEREVAN, Armenia — The first refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have arrived in Armenia, local officials reported 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. A total of 377 people had arrived in Armenia from the region as of Sunday night, Armenian authoritie­s reported.

Russia’s Defense 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 told The Associated Press 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.

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 weren’t 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 approximat­ely 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.

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 center of talks between the sides that began Thursday in the Azerbaijan­i city of Yevlakh.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an address to the nation 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.”

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 Sunday in the center of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, to demand Pashinyan’s ouster.

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

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

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