LONDON (AP) — More badly needed humanitarian aid was on its way to the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh via both Azerbaijan and Armenia on Saturday. The development comes days after Baku reclaimed control of the province and began talks with representatives of its ethnic Armenian population on reintegrating the area, prompting some residents to flee their homes for fear of reprisals.
The aid shipments and evacuations followed Azerbaijan’s months-long road blockade of the region led to food and fuel shortages. Baku followed with a lightning military offensive this week.
Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. Armenian forces also took control of substantial territory around the Azerbaijani region.
Azerbaijan regained control of the surrounding territory in a six-week war with Armenia in 2020. A Russia-brokered armistice ended the war, and a contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region to monitor it.
On Tuesday, Azerbaijan launched heavy artillery fire against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. A cease-fire was announced a day later, toning down fears of a third full-scale war over the region.
Under the agreement mediated by Russian peacekeeping forces, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities made sizable concessions: disbanding the region’s defense forces and withdrawing Armenia’s military contingent. But the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status remains open, and at the center of talks between the sides that began Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.
Russia’s RIA Novosti on Saturday published photos of tanks, air defense systems, and other weapons reportedly surrendered by the province’s separatist forces to the Azerbaijani army.
Hundreds of ethnic Armenians evacuated by Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh in the wake of the Azerbaijani offensive — which Baku termed an “anti-terrorist operation” — were filmed Saturday camping outside an airport near the Russian peacekeepers’ base.
Elena Yeremyan, from the village of Askeran, told Nagorno-Karabakh-based broadcaster Artsakh TV that she and her family “had no intention of leaving” the area, as they “didn’t feel safe anywhere” after Azerbaijani troops moved into the region.
Valeri Hayrapetyan from Haterk said that he and his neighbors scrambled to leave after Azerbaijani forces entered the village earlier that day.
“People left as they could. Someone even left without any clothes. They couldn’t take anything. There are people who haven’t eaten anything. Someone lost consciousness yesterday because of starvation,” he said.
A third evacuee, also from Haterk, claimed that Azerbaijani troops were not allowing young men to leave. Romela Avanesyan also referenced rumors that they might be imprisoned, but did not provide specifics.
The evacuees’ claims could not be independently verified.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan called Saturday for the United Nations to send representatives of various agencies to Nagorno-Karabakh immediately to monitor and assess the human rights, humanitarian and security situation there. A message seeking comment on his request, made at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders, was sent to a U.N. spokesperson.
Mirzoyan complained that the international community had left the region’s residents in peril and deprivation since the road blockade began in December. It was no coincidence, he said, that Azerbaijan went on to make its military move in the midst of the U.N.’s biggest gathering of the year.
“The message is clear: ‘You can talk about peace, and we can go to war, and you will not be able to change anything,’” he said hours after Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov stood at the same rostrum.
Azerbaijan also feels that the international community has fallen short — by not making “real steps and targeted public messages to persuade Armenia to honor its commitments,” Bayramov said.
He said Baku that was working “to address the immediate needs” of people in Nagorno-Karabakh and intends to “reintegrate” them as “equal citizens.” Azerbaijan has said it will guarantee Nagorno-Karabakh residents “all rights and freedoms” in line with the country’s constitution and international human rights obligations, including safeguards for ethnic minorities.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement Saturday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and expressed “deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Blinken underscored that the U.S. “is calling on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and uphold its obligations to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to ensure its forces comply with international humanitarian law,” Miller said.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s office said Saturday that Baku had set up a “working group” to provide Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents with medical care, food and other staples.
Azerbaijani authorities reported Saturday that they shipped over 60 tons of fuel that same day through the South Caucasus country’s territory, through a road leading from the city of Aghdam with Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital, Stepanakert.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also said Saturday that it had dispatched 70 tons of humanitarian aid, mostly flour, to Nagorno-Karabakh via the road connection known as the Lachin corridor. Russian peacekeepers were supposed to ensure free movement along the route, but Baku imposed a blockade in December, alleging that Yerevan was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the province’s separatist forces.
Armenia charged that the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s approximately 120,000 people. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Baku to take control of the region.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said earlier this week that it has enabled aid deliveries along the Lachin corridor.
Moscow has also sent over 50 tons of food aid and other “basic necessities” to Nagorno-Karabakh, the state-run RIA Novosti agency reported on Saturday. The Russian Defense Ministry that same day published a video showing Russian peacekeepers unloading the cargo.
Aliyev said through his press office that “better opportunities” had emerged to seek a peace agreement with Armenia after 30 years of conflict, largely centered on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.
His foreign minister told the General Assembly that the path forward is for Yerevan to take “tangible steps” to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty in the province.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the gathering that it was time “for mutual trust-building” between the adversaries, and that Russian troops “will certainly help.”
Meanwhile, protesters rallied again Saturday in Armenia’s major cities, demanding that authorities defend ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for Pashinyan to resign. Armenia’s Investigative Committee said it had opened 49 criminal cases against demonstrators accused of calling for mass disorder, vandalism and carrying unlicensed weapons.
The Armenian police also told Russia’s Interfax agency on Friday that it had arrested 98 protesters at a rally in Yerevan.
Associated Press writers Aida Sultanova in London, Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.