More than three quarters of the 120,000-strong population of the ethnic Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh had fled by Friday afternoon after defeat by Azerbaijan, a faster-than-expected mass exodus that looked likely to be total.
Cars, buses and tractors carrying refugees crowded the highways on the fifth day of the exodus, which brought a sudden and decisive end to one of the most intractable of the decades-old ethnic “frozen conflicts” of the former Soviet Union.
Armenia’s government said nearly 93,000 people had now crossed onto its territory, Russia’s RIA news agency reported. Earlier, a UN refugee agency official said the total could reach 120,000, matching estimates of the entire population of the enclave, part of Azerbaijan that broke away in the 1990s.
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Armenia, which supported the separatists for decades but ultimately proved powerless to protect them, sent city buses from its capital Yerevan to help bring people out. Volunteers greeted the purple buses on the road at the border, pushing boxes of bread and bottles of water through the windows.
Azerbaijan says it will respect the rights of ethnic Armenians who choose to stay, but that it has destroyed the concept of a breakaway state forever.
It said on Friday it would allow a UN team to visit the region within days, a major demand of Western countries.
The Petrosyan family - Geghetsik, 65, husband Albert, 71, and their 30-year-old son Agasi who uses a wheelchair and has severe learning difficulties - spent a night in Goris on the Armenian side of the border after abandoning their home to escape.
They strapped Agasi’s wheelchair to the roof of their car as they headed out again to search for a place to live.
“We built our home so that everything would be nice for him,” said Geghetsik, through tears, speaking of the accommodations they need for their son’s disabilities. “I won’t be able to find a flat now that will be good for him.”
Azeri forces swiftly recaptured Karabakh last week, having sealed it off since the start of this year. Residents say they had suffered hunger and sickness during the effective siege.
“This is a situation where they’ve lived under nine months of blockade,” Kavita Belani, UNHCR representative in Armenia, told a UN press briefing by video link. “And when they come in, they’re full of anxiety, they’re scared, they’re frightened and they want answers.”
She said agencies were prepared to cope with 120,000 people, having had to discard plans that anticipated up to 90,000.
Nearly a third of the refugees are children, including many separated from families.
“The situation often involves families arriving with children so weak that they have fainted in their parents’ arms,” said International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies representative Hicham Diab.
Carlos Morazzani, operations manager of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said it had transferred around 200 bodies out of Karabakh - victims of a huge blast at a fuel depot on the night the exodus started, as well as of recent fighting.
The Red Cross will be focusing on helping those left behind, with basic food and hygiene items, he said.
“We had been planning for the evacuation to be a longer process,” Morazzani said. “The evacuations this week have gone very fast, very high numbers of people, but as a result of that many people become stranded.”
Azerbaijan’s victory reverses a humiliating defeat it suffered as the Soviet Union crumbled. Around a million Azeris lost their homes then as Karabakh separatists captured a wide swathe of territory around their breakaway region.
Azerbaijan recaptured much of that land in a short war in 2020, but the separatists still had held onto much of Karabakh itself under a peace agreement brokered by Moscow and guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers.
Armenia has blamed Russia for failing to ensure the security of the breakaway region. Moscow rejects blame.
Western countries have denounced Azerbaijan’s lightning assault on Karabakh, while calling on Baku to fulfill promises to protect civilians.
“Azerbaijan bears the responsibility to ensure the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians, including their right to live in their homes in dignity without intimidation and discrimination, as well as the right to return for those displaced,” a European Union spokesperson said in a statement.
“It is essential that a UN mission can access the territory within the next days.”
Azerbaijan said on Friday it had detained Levon Mnatsakanyan, a former military commander of the separatist forces from 2015-2018, at a checkpoint at the frontier.
It has also detained a former head of Karabakh’s government, Ruben Vardanyan, and charged him with financing terrorism.