Armenia said on Wednesday that nearly half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population has fled the enclave since Azerbaijan crushed the rebels’ decades-long fight for an independent state last week.
Yerevan’s attempts to absorb the sea of homeless and hungry ethnic Armenians come with officials still trying to identify the whereabouts of more than 100 people reported missing in a fuel depot blast Monday that claimed 68 lives.
The fireball erupted as refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh were stocking up on fuel for the long drive along the lone mountain road leading to Armenia. The Armenian government said more than 53,000 people had left since Azerbaijan lifted its nine-month blockade on the enclave on Sunday.
Some of the families at the border said that they were urged to leave by the separatists.
The updated refugee number accounts for nearly half of the region’s 120,000 population and marks a fundamental shift in ethnic control of lands disputed by mostly Christian Armenians and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijanis for the past century. It also adds to the economic strains of Armenia — a landlocked Caucasus country with few natural resources and emerging problems with longstanding ally Russia.
Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had detained a former separatist leader of Nagorno-Karabakh while he was trying to enter Armenia.
The state border service said Ruben Vardanyan, a businessman who headed the Armenian separatist government from November 2022 until February, had been handed to officials in Baku after being detained on the road to Armenia.
It also released a photograph of Vardanyan, who was born in 1968, being flanked by two security officers, who were holding him by the arms.
Azerbaijan has agreed to allow separatists who lay down their weapons to leave for Armenia under the terms of a ceasefire deal reached last Wednesday.
But an Azerbaijani government source said that border guards were also looking for “war crime” suspects who had to face prosecution.
It was not immediately clear what charges Vardanyan might potentially face. Vardanyan’s wife, Veronika Zonabend, said her husband was “arrested and detained by the Azerbaijani authorities at the border this morning as he tried to leave with thousands of Armenians.” “I ask for your prayers and support for my husband’s safe release,” she wrote her husband’s account on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter.
The Armenian government said it had prepared living arrangements for 40,000 families after last week’s fighting broke out.
But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s spokeswoman said late on Tuesday that the government had so far been able to find housing for just 2,850 people.
“There are thousands of (refugees) staying in Goris at the moment,” deputy mayor Irina Yolian.
“It’s impossible to give the exact figure. They come and go every day.” The looming humanitarian crisis poses a political problem for Pashinyan.
The Red Cross and the UN refugee agency are trying to organise immediate help.
Baku’s forces have approached the outskirts of rebel stronghold Stepanakert — but not yet entered the emptying city — after last week’s fighting claimed about 200 lives on each side.