(CN) — The South Caucasus on Tuesday was in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe as the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh fled their homes by the tens of thousands, fearing violence by Azerbaijani forces now in control of the disputed mountainous enclave.
Azerbaijan took full control of Nagorno-Karabakh six days ago after its forces launched a large-scale attack, forcing the capitulation of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave with about 120,000 residents inside the internationally recognized boundaries of Azerbaijan.
Sunday began a mass exodus after Azerbaijan opened a mountainous corridor linking the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to Armenia. Videos on social media showed a stream of vehicles stuck in a miles-long traffic jam snaking along the so-called Lachin Corridor.
By Tuesday, more than 19,000 ethnic Armenians had been admitted into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, according to news reports.
Adding to the chaos, on Monday evening a fuel depot exploded, killing at least 20 people and injuring nearly 300 others who were waiting to fill up their vehicles and leave Nagorno-Karabakh, plunging the overwhelmed hospital services in Stepanakert, the region's main city, to the brink.
Starting in December 2022, Azerbaijani forces took possession of the Lachin Corridor and closed off the movement of people and goods. The blockade effectively strangled Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving it in short supply of essential goods even before Baku launched its military operation.
Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh said by Tuesday they were running out of water, food and medicine, though Azerbaijan claimed it was sending in relief and looking after the civilian population. The United States, Russia and the European Union are among those who have promised international relief.
There are widespread fears that ethnic Armenians will be subjected to violence by Azerbaijani forces and militia groups if they remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. This fear is prompting the mass exodus and leading to charges that the world is witnessing ethnic cleansing take place and standing by without stopping it. Azerbaijan has promised to integrate the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh peacefully, but still many fear reprisals and mistreatment.
“Rivers of cars are flowing to Armenia with refugees forced out of Nagorno-Karabakh, from their ancestral land, their homes, communities, villages and cities, because no one guaranteed their rights and securities,” Edmon Marukyan, Armenia’s ambassador-at-large, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“This is a classic case of ethnic cleansing implemented by Azerbaijan in the 21st century,” he said. “There is no doubt Azerbaijan must be held accountable for this act.”
Azerbaijan and Armenia, both former Soviet republics, have fought for control of the region ever since the U.S.S.R. collapsed. Known as Artsakh by Armenians, the region lies inside the internationally recognized boundaries of Azerbaijan, but ethnic Armenians have lived there for centuries.
Since the conflict started in the late 1980s, both sides have been accused of extreme violence and committing ethnic cleansing. Large numbers of Azerbaijanis were pushed out of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s by Armenia during the first war over the region. The conflict is fueled by religious tensions, too; generally, Armenians are Christian and Azerbaijanis Muslim.
The crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to spiral further out of control with Armenia and its Western-leaning leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, caught in the middle of a wider clash between Russia and the West that's erupted with the war in Ukraine.
Russia has long been Armenia's principal ally, but that relationship has frayed under Pashinyan, who's tried to turn the country to the West following a popular uprising in 2018 that brought him to power.
Armenia is a member of the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's response to the NATO military alliance. But Pashinyan has opened military exercises with NATO and pushed move Armenia closer to the European Union.
It's a conflict that draws in multiple players — Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States and the EU — all vying for regional power and influence.
But at its heart, the conflict is being driven by Azerbaijan, Armenia's oil-rich bigger neighbor that is ruled by an authoritarian regime run by President Ilham Aliyev and supported militarily by Turkey.
The Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993 and amassed huge wealth. Despite his authoritarian and corrupt rule, Aliyev has been welcomed by the West, in large part due to his country's natural resource riches and closeness to Turkey, a NATO member. In recent years, the EU helped pay to build a controversial long-distance pipeline from Azerbaijan to Italy in a bid to find alternatives to Russian natural gas.
For years, Azerbaijan has sought unimpeded access to a landlocked enclave in its possession separated by Armenian territory. Connecting the Azerbaijani enclave, known as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, to the rest of the country further to the east would in turn open up a corridor to Turkey.
Armenia has opposed opening up the corridor, saying doing so would effectively give Azerbaijan control over Armenian territory and separate Armenia from Iran, its ally in the region. Iran also strongly opposes allowing Azerbaijan and Turkey to be connected by the corridor.
Negotiations between Azerbaijani, Armenian and European diplomats took place on Tuesday and more talks were scheduled. Meanwhile, there were calls for the West to impose sanctions and punish Aliyev for sparking the conflict by sending his troops to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and breaking a peace deal brokered by Moscow after fighting erupted in 2020.
Meanwhile, American officials, including USAID chief Samantha Power, arrived in Armenia on Tuesday. She promised $11.5 million in relief for ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia's foreign ministry issued an angry statement against Pashinyan, blaming him for losing Nagorno-Karabakh and betraying his country's long-standing alliance with Moscow. Russia has about 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and the West fears Moscow will attempt to steer Armenia back into its sphere.
Pashinyan, meanwhile, is under pressure at home with large protests and anger erupting on the streets of Yerevan over the surrender of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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