Thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, queuing up for fuel and jamming the mountain road to Armenia after their fighters were defeated by Azerbaijan in a lightning military operation.
The leadership of the 120,000 Armenians who call Karabakh home told Reuters on Sunday that they did not want to live as part of Azerbaijan and that they would leave for Armenia because they feared persecution and ethnic cleansing.
In the Karabakh capital, known as Stepanakert by Armenia and Khankendi by Azerbaijan, crowds of people were loading belongings into buses and trucks as they left for Armenia.
Refugees who reached Armenia told Reuters they believed the history of their breakaway state was finished.
“No one is going back – that’s it,” Anna Agopyan, who reached Goris, a border town in Armenia, told Reuters. “The topic of Karabakh is over now for good, I think.”
Srbuhi, a mother of three who reached Armenia, shed tears as she held her young daughter.
“I left everything there,” she said.
The Armenian government said at least 6,650 people from Nagorno-Karabakh had crossed into Armenia, up from about 4,850 people five hours earlier. Video showed a heavily congested road to Armenia from the enclave.
The ethnic Armenian leadership said it would remain in place until all those who wanted to leave what they call Artsakh were able to go. They urged residents to hold back from crowding the roads out but promised free fuel to all those who were leaving.
The Armenians of Karabakh, a territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, were forced into a ceasefire last week after a 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev hosted his ally Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday in the autonomous Nakhchivan exclave – a strip of Azerbaijani territory separated from the rest of the country by Armenia. Aliyev hinted at the prospect of creating a land corridor from the strip to the rest of Azerbaijan through Armenia, which opposes the idea.
Senior U.S. officials meanwhile visited Armenia as the Armenian government rowed openly with Russia — all signs of shifts in the wider geopolitical landscape that form the backdrop to the crisis.