Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have hailed Baku’s military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh as thousands of ethnic Armenians flee from the breakaway region into Armenia.
Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has an ethnic Armenian majority, were forced into a ceasefire last week after a 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.
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Several days after the fighting, the first refugees arrived in Armenia on Sunday and 6,650 people have so far entered, Yerevan said on Monday.
Valery Airapetyan, a Nagorno-Karabakh resident who spoke to Al Jazeera, was among those fleeing to Armenia.
“We found a litre of gasoline, ran away and came here,” he said in the middle of his journey out of the region.
More than 200 people were injured late on Monday at a petrol station just outside of the breakaway region’s capital, Stepanakert, where a fuel tank exploded. Dozens of people were lining up at the petrol station at the time as they sought to leave the region.
It wasn’t immediately clear if there were any deaths. Armenian Health Ministry spokeswoman Angelina Isakhanyan told The Associated Press news agency that there were “several dozens of wounded, with burns of different (degrees).”
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that he expected about 120,000 civilians to leave the region for Armenia due to “the danger of ethnic cleansing”.
The majority of Karabakh Armenians do not accept Azerbaijan’s promises to guarantee their rights.
The ethnic Armenian leadership said it would remain in place until all those who wanted to leave what they call Artsakh were able to go. They urged residents to hold back from crowding the roads out but promised free fuel to all those who were leaving.
A second round of talks between Azerbaijani officials and separatist representatives began in Khojaly on Monday following the opening meeting last week.
Erdogan, Aliyev hail victory
Turkey’s Erdogan arrived in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave on Monday for talks Aliyev to discuss Turkey-Azerbaijan ties and regional and global issues.
Nakhchivan is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory but forms a slim border with Turkey.
At a joint news conference with Aliyev, Erdogan said Azerbaijan’s victory in Karabakh inspired pride.
“It is a matter of pride that the operation was successfully completed in a short period of time, with utmost sensitivity to the rights of civilians,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan and Aliyev signed a deal for a gas pipeline and the Turkish leader said “I’m very pleased to be with all of you as we connect Nakhchivan with the Turkish world.”
Senior US officials meanwhile visited Armenia as the Armenian government rowed openly with Russia – all signs of shifts in the wider geopolitical landscape that form the backdrop to the crisis.
Russia warned Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan that he only had himself to blame for Azerbaijan’s victory over Karabakh because he had insisted on seeking to work with the West rather than working with Moscow and Baku for peace.
Russia said Pashinyan had “shied away from working in rhythm with Russia and Azerbaijan and instead ran to the West” to resolve the Karabakh crisis.
Pashinyan said on Sunday that Russia had not helped Yerevan over Karabakh.
Washington expressed its alarm at the Karabakh crisis as US Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power and US State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim arrived in Yerevan.
“The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organizations and commercial traffic,” USAID said in the announcement of the trip.
Decades of fighting
Nagorno-Karabakh is located in a region that has come under the control of Persians, Turks, Russians, Ottomans and Soviets over centuries.
After the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, it was claimed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. It was designated an autonomous region within Azerbaijan before the Soviet Union collapsed.
After the fall of the USSR, the region’s Armenians overthrew Azerbaijani control in the First Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994, which killed tens of thousands of people.
Azerbaijan regained swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in the second war over the region in 2020.
According to Yerevan, more than 200 people were killed and 400 wounded in last week’s operation, which was slammed by Western countries.
Pashinyan is facing protests and calls for his resignation for failing ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.