Shropshire Star

Nagorno-Karabakh blast kills 20 and injures nearly 300 as thousands flee

The Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz last week.

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A powerful blast at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh killed at least 20 people and injured hundreds more on Monday as ethnic Armenians streamed out of the breakaway territory after the Azerbaijani military reclaimed full control of it.

The explosion at the fuel storage facility near the regional capital of Stepanakert killed 20 people and wounded nearly 300, separatist authorities said. They added that 290 people have been hospitalised.

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, but Nagorno-Karabakh presidential aide David Babayan said initial information suggested that sabotage was unlikely.

The majority of the victims were in “severe or extremely severe” condition, Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan tweeted.

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Ethnic Armenians wait near Kornidzor to leave (Vasily Krestyaninov/AP)

Armenia’s health ministry said a helicopter brought some blast victims to Armenia on Tuesday morning, and more flights were expected.

Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said on X, formerly Twitter, that hospitals in Azerbaijan were ready to treat victims, but not if any had been taken to them. Azerbaijan has sent in burn-treatment medicine and other humanitarian aid, he said.

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.

Armenia’s government said Tuesday morning that more than 13,500 people — about 12% of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population — have fled to Armenia this week.

Moscow said that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh were assisting the evacuation. Some 700 people remained in the peacekeepers’ camp there on Monday.

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.

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A convoy of Russian peacekeepers drives through the queue of traffic (Vasily Krestyaninov/AP)

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 defence ministry said on Monday that two of its soldiers were killed a day earlier when a military truck hit a land mine.

In an address to the nation on 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 Mr Pashinyan’s resignation over what they call his failure to protect Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh continued blocking the Armenian capital’s main avenues on Monday, clashing occasionally with police.

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Thousands of Armenians have streamed out of Nagorno-Karabakh (Stepan Poghosyan, Photolure photo/AP)

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 said 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 mobilise food and medical aid for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and keep working toward a ‘’sustainable peace’’ in the region.

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Ethnic Armenians head to to Kornidzor (Vasily Krestyaninov/AP)

France, which has a big Armenian diaspora, has for decades played a mediating role in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, 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.

Mr 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.

The men 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”.

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