Azerbaijan arrests a former senior official in Karabakh as the Armenian exodus increases

  • A former separatist leader is arrested in Azerbaijan
  • Armenian authorities in Karabakh say 47,000 people have fled
  • Germany joins the call for international observers
  • The number of victims of the fuel depot fire has increased

GORIS, Armenia, September 27 (Reuters) – Azerbaijan arrested a former head of the separatist ethnic Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday as he tried to flee to Armenia, part of a mass exodus of tens of thousands of people that has sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire banker and philanthropist, headed Karabakh’s separatist government from November 2022 to February 2023.

His wife, Veronica Zonabend, said on his Telegram channel that he was arrested while trying to flee as part of a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians after Azerbaijan regained control of the region last week.

The Azerbaijan border service said he was transferred to the capital, Baku, and handed over to other government agencies.

Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but most of its residents are ethnic Armenians who separated in the 1990s in the first two wars there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fearing retaliation from Azerbaijan over the bloody history between the two sides, Armenians are abandoning their homes and fleeing en masse in cars and trucks along the winding mountain road leading to Armenia. Karabakh authorities said 47,115 people have left so far, out of an estimated 120,000 people of Armenian origin.

Western governments fear a humanitarian catastrophe and are pressuring Azerbaijan to allow international observers into Karabakh to monitor its treatment of the local population.

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“What is needed now is transparency, and the eyes and ears of the international community immediately,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on X, previously on Twitter.

“It would be a demonstration of confidence that Azerbaijan is serious about its commitments to the security and well-being of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh if ​​it allows the presence of international observers.”

Accusations

Azerbaijan says it wants to reintegrate the population of Armenian origin in Karabakh peacefully, and strongly rejects Armenian accusations of ethnic cleansing.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said last week that Armenians “can finally breathe a sigh of relief” and will be able to vote, receive public education and practice their Christian rituals freely in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. He added that Baku will turn Karabakh into a “paradise.”

It was not clear on what basis Vardanyan was detained, but Azerbaijan indicated that it would seek to prosecute some figures in the Karabakh leadership.

Refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region ride in the back of a truck as they arrive at the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, September 26, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze Obtaining licensing rights

“We have accused elements of the criminal regime and will bring them to justice,” Aliyev said last week, without naming anyone or specifying any crime.

Zonabend said she asked people to “pray and support for my husband’s safe release.”

The mountain road leading from Karabakh towards Armenia has been choked for days, with many people sleeping in cars or searching for firewood to keep warm. The 77-kilometre journey to the border took at least 30 hours.

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Vera Petrosyan, a 70-year-old retired teacher, told Reuters: “I left everything behind. I don’t know what’s in store for me. I have nothing. I don’t want anything.”

Death toll

Local authorities said that at least 68 people were killed, 105 were missing, and about 300 were injured in a huge explosion that occurred at a gas station in Karabakh on Monday. It was not clear why.

Russia said its peacekeeping force in the region evacuated more than 120 people by helicopter.

Armenia is angry that Russian peacekeepers, in place since the 44-day war in 2020, did nothing to prevent Azerbaijan from launching its attack last week.

With Russia preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, the crisis highlighted the decline in its ability to play the role of security guarantor in the Caucasus region, where Turkey, Iran, and the United States compete with it for influence.

Tens of thousands have been killed in the wars over Karabakh since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of which Armenia and Azerbaijan were part.

The death toll rose further in the fighting that broke out last week, in which Karabakh authorities said they lost at least 200 people.

Azerbaijan said on Wednesday that 192 of its soldiers were killed and published their names and photos on the Defense Ministry’s website. More than 50 young people were in their teens.

Reuters graphics

Writing by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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