The leadership of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh stated to Reuters on Sunday that the 120,000 ethnic Armenians residing there have decided to leave for Armenia. They expressed their reluctance to live as part of Azerbaijan and cited concerns about the possibility of ethnic cleansing.
The Armenians of Karabakh, a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but beyond Baku’s control since the breakup of the Soviet Union, were forced to declare a ceasefire on Sept. 20 after a lightning 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.
Azerbaijan says it will guarantee their rights and integrate the region but the leadership of the Armenians in Karabakh told Reuters that they would leave. Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied any intention to harm them.
“Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands,” David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters.
He said it was unclear when the Karabakh Armenians would move down the Lachin corridor which links the territory to Armenia, where Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced calls to resign for failing to save Karabakh.
“The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world,” Babayan said. “Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins.”
The process of giving up the weapons of the ethnic Armenian fighters is underway, Babayan said.
The exodus of so many people from Karabakh ushers in yet another twist to the tumultuous history of mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, which over the centuries has come under the sway of Persians, Turks, Russians, Ottomans and Soviets.
It could also change the delicate balance of power in the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnicities crisscrossed with oil and gas pipelines where Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran are jostling for influence.
Azerbaijan, which is mainly Muslim, has said the Armenians, who are Christian, can leave if they want. Pashinyan has said they should stay unless it is unsafe for them to remain.
Medical evacuations from the breakaway region are expected on Sunday.
With thousands of the Karabakh Armenians left without food, ethnic Armenian authorities in the region said late on Saturday that about 150 tons of humanitarian cargo from Russia and another 65 tons of flour shipped by the International Committee of the Red Cross had arrived in the region.