Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and European Union observers drive their...

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and European Union observers drive their cars past a check point on the road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. Armenian officials say more than 70% of Nagorno-Karabakh's original population have fled the region for Armenia. Credit: AP/Vasily Krestyaninov

YEREVAN, Armenia — The exodus of more than 80% of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh raises questions about Azerbaijan's plans for the ethnic Armenian enclave following its lightning offensive last week to reclaim the breakaway region.

The Armenian government said Friday evening that more than 97,700 people, from a population of around 120,000, had fled to Armenia since Azerbaijan attacked and ordered the region's militants to disarm. The enclave's separatist government said it would dissolve itself by the end of the year after a three-decade bid for independence.

Some people lined up for days to escape Nagorno-Karabakh because the only route to Armenia — a winding mountain road — became jammed with slow-moving vehicles.

Armenian Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan said some people, including the elderly, had died while on the road to Armenia, because they were “exhausted due to malnutrition, left without even taking medicine with them, and were on the road for more than 40 hours.”

On Thursday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan alleged that the exodus of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh amounted to “a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland.” Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected Pashinyan’s accusations, saying the departure of Armenians was “their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation.”

Laurence Broers, an expert on the Caucasus with the London-based think tank Chatham House, said it was unlikely that significant numbers of Armenians would remain in Nagorno-Karabakh and that “the territory will become homogenous.”

“If you define ethnic cleansing as actions by force or through intimidation to induce a population to leave, that’s very much what the last year or so has looked like,” he said.

Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations employees speak with ethnic Armenian...

Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations employees speak with ethnic Armenian elderly woman from Nagorno-Karabakh arrived in Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. The separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced Thursday that it will dissolve itself and the unrecognized republic will cease to exist by the end of the year, and Armenian officials said more than half of the population has already fled. More than half of the region's population has already fled to Armenia, according to Armenian officials. Credit: AP/Vasily Krestyaninov

During the three decades of conflict in the region, Azerbaijan and separatists inside Nagorno-Karabakh, alongside allies in Armenia, have accused each other of targeted attacks, massacres and other atrocities, leaving people on both sides deeply suspicious and fearful.

While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region, most are now fleeing, because they don’t believe that Azerbaijani authorities will treat them fairly and humanely or guarantee them their language, religion and culture.

In December, Azerbaijan blocked the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, accusing the Armenian government or using it for illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.

Armenia alleged the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, which called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.

Ethnic Armenian Margarita from Nagorno-Karabakh sits with a child after...

Ethnic Armenian Margarita from Nagorno-Karabakh sits with a child after arriving in Armenia's Goris in Syunik region, Armenia, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. The separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced Thursday that it will dissolve itself and the unrecognized republic will cease to exist by the end of the year, and Armenian officials said more than half of the population has already fled. More than half of the region's population has already fled to Armenia, according to Armenian officials. Credit: AP/Vasily Krestyaninov

In the 1990s, the Azerbaijani population was itself expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within Azerbaijan. As part of its “Great Return” program, the government in Baku has already relocated Azerbaijanis to territories recaptured from Nagorno-Karabakh forces in a 2020 war.

Analysts believe Azerbaijan could expand the program and resettle Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijanis, while stating that ethnic Armenians could stay or exercise a right to return in order to “refute accusations that Karabakh Armenians have been ethnically cleansed,” Broers said.

A decree signed by the region’s separatist president, Samvel Shakhramanyan, cited a Sept. 20 agreement to end the fighting under which Azerbaijan would allow the “free, voluntary and unhindered movement” of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents to Armenia.

Some of those who fled the regional capital, Stepanakert, said they had no hope for the future.

“I left Stepanakert having a slight hope that maybe something will change and I will come back soon, and these hopes are ruined after reading about the dissolution of our government,” 21-year-old student Ani Abaghyan told The Associated Press.

“I don’t want to live with the Azerbaijanis," said Narine Karamyan, 50. “Maybe there are some people who will return to their homes. I don’t want that. I want to live as an Armenian.”

After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia. Then, during a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the south Caucasus Mountains along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier. Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.

Armine Ghazaryan, who crossed into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh with her four young children, told the AP that it was the second time she had been displaced from her home, saying she had previously sheltered with her children in her neighbors' basement during the war in 2020.

“At least we live in peace here. At least we stay in Armenia," she said upon arriving in the Armenian town of Goris.

On Monday night, a fuel reservoir exploded at a gas station where people lined up for gas to fill up their vehicles to flee to Armenia. At least 68 people were killed and nearly 300 others were injured, with more than 100 others still considered missing after the blast, which exacerbated fuel shortages that were already dire after the blockade.

On Friday the State Emergency Service of Nagorno-Karabakh's interior ministry said 170 remains and body fragments had been collected and would be sent to Armenia for DNA identification.

Avanesyan, the Armenian health minister, said 142 people who were injured after the fuel tank exploded were taken to Armenia for treatment and that some of them were in very serious condition.

On Thursday, Azerbaijani authorities charged Ruben Vardanyan, the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government, with financing terrorism, creating illegal armed formations and illegally crossing a state border. He was detained on Wednesday by Azerbaijani border guards as he was trying to leave Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia along with tens of thousands of others.

Vardanyan, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, was placed in pretrial detention for at least four months and faces up to 14 years in prison. His arrest appeared to indicate Azerbaijan’s intent to quickly enforce its grip on the region.

Another top separatist figure, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former foreign minister and now presidential adviser David Babayan, said Thursday that he would surrender to Azerbaijani authorities who ordered him to face an investigation in Baku.

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