By Avet Demourian | Associated Press
YEREVAN, Armenia — A powerful blast rocked the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region Monday evening as ethnic Armenians streamed out of the breakaway territory after the Azerbaijani military reclaimed full control of it in a lighting offensive last week.
The explosion at fuel storage facility near the regional capital of Stepanakert wounded more than 200 people, Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan said on X, formerly known as Twitter. It was not immediately clear what caused the blast, which happened as residents were lining up to get fuel for their cars in order to leave the region.
The majority of the victims were in “severe or extremely severe” condition, Stepanyan said, adding that the victims would need to be airlifted out of the region for medical treatment to save their lives. It was not immediately clear if there were any deaths.
The Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz last week, forcing the separatist authorities to agree to lay down weapons and start talks on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan after three decades of separatist rule.
While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region and restore supplies after a 10-month blockade, many local residents feared reprisals and decided to leave for Armenia.
The Armenian government said that more 6,500 Nagorno-Karabakh residents had fled to Armenia as of Monday evening. Moscow said that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh were assisting the evacuation. Some 700 people remained in the peacekeepers’ camp there by Monday night.
Dozens of people were lining up at the fuel facility where the blast occurred because they had been promised fuel — a scarcity during the blockade — for their cars in order to move to Armenia, according to Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities.
The explosion took place hours after the second round of talks between Azerbaijani officials and separatist representatives was held Monday in the town of Khojaly, just north of the Nagorno-Karabakh capital. The first round was held last week. Azerbaijan’s presidential office said in a statement that the talks were held “in a constructive atmosphere” and that discussion focused on humanitarian aid to the region and medical services.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said Monday that two of its soldiers were killed a day earlier when a military truck hit a land mine. It didn’t name the area where the explosion occurred.
In an address to the nation Sunday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his government was working with international partners to protect the rights and security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“If these efforts do not produce concrete results, the government will welcome our sisters and brothers from Nagorno-Karabakh in the Republic of Armenia with every care,” he said.
Demonstrators demanding Pashinyan’s resignation over what they call his failure to protect Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh continued blocking the Armenian capital’s main avenues Monday, clashing occasionally with police.
Russian peacekeepers have been in the region since 2020, when a Russian-brokered armistice ended a six-week war between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinyan and many others in Armenia accused the peacekeepers of failing to prevent the hostilities and protect the Armenian population. Moscow rejected the accusations, arguing that its forces had no legal grounds to intervene, particularly after Pashinyan’s recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.
“We are categorically against attempts to put the blame on the Russian side, especially the Russian peacekeepers, who have shown a true heroism,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
He demurred when asked whether the Russian peacekeepers would remain in the region, saying that “no one can really say anything for now.”
Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During the war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
In December, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging that the Armenian government was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the region’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 the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged support for Armenia and Armenians, saying that France will mobilize food and medical aid for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and keep working toward a ”sustainable peace” in the region.
France, which has a big Armenian diaspora, has for decades played a mediating role in Nagorno-Karabakh. A few hundred people rallied outside the French Foreign Ministry over the weekend, demanding sanctions against Azerbaijan and accusing Paris of not doing enough to protect Armenian interests in the region.
“France is very vigilant about Armenia’s territorial integrity because that is what is at stake,” Macron said in an interview with France-2 and TF1 television, accusing Russia of complicity with Azerbaijan and charging that Turkey threatens Armenia’s borders.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the meantime, visited Azerbaijan on Monday in a show of support to its ally.
Russia has been the main ally and sponsor of Armenia and has a military base there, but it also has sought to maintain friendly ties with Azerbaijan. But Moscow’s clout in the region has waned quickly amid the Russian war in Ukraine while the influence of Azerbaijan’s top ally Turkey has increased.
Erdogan arrived in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave on Monday for talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to discuss Turkey-Azerbaijan ties and regional and global issues. Nakhchivan is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory but forms a slim border with Turkey.
Erdogan and Aliyev signed a deal for a gas pipeline and the Turkish leader said “I’m very pleased to be with all of you as we connect Nakhchivan with the Turkish world.”
Asked about Erdogan’s visit, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, voiced hope that it will “contribute to the regional security and help normalize life in Karabakh.”
Aliyev, at a news conference with Erdogan, said “It is crystal clear that, independent of their ethnicity, the people living in the Karabakh region are Azerbaijani people so their safety and security is ensured by the Azerbaijani state.”
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Meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, visited Armenia Monday to “affirm U.S. support for Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and democracy and to help address humanitarian needs stemming from the recent violence in Nagorno-Karabakh,” her office said in a statement. She was joined by U.S. Department of State Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim.
“The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organizations and commercial traffic,” USAID said.
At the United Nations, spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters that the world organization is concerned about the influx of people into Armenia. “If we are, as the U.N., given access, we stand ready to conduct humanitarian needs assessment and provide assistance to affected people,” he said. Asked whether the U.N. was willing to take any further action, he said its “focus right now is on possible humanitarian assistance.”
Associated Press writers Aida Sultanova in London, Andrew Wilks in Istanbul, Jennifer Peltz in New York, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.