Azerbaijan arrests former top Karabakh official as Armenian exodus mounts


  • Former separatist leader of Azerbaijan arrested.
  • Karabakh Armenian officials say 47,000 have fled.
  • Germany joins the call for international observers.
  • Fuel depot fire death toll rises

GORS, ​​Armenia, Sept 27 (Reuters) – A former head of the divided ethnic Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh was arrested by Azerbaijan on Wednesday after he fled to Armenia as part of an exodus of tens of thousands of people. The attempt was a humanitarian crisis.

Ruben Vardanian, a billionaire banker and philanthropist, headed the Karabakh separatist government from November 2022 to February 2023.

His wife Veronika Zonaband said on her Telegram channel that he was arrested last week as part of a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians after Azerbaijan took back control of the region. was done.

Azerbaijan’s border service said he had been taken to the capital Baku and handed over to other state agencies.

Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians who were separated in the first two wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Fearing Azerbaijani reprisals because of the bloody history between the two sides, ethnic Armenians are abandoning their homes and fleeing en masse in cars and trucks along the mountain pass that leads to Armenia. Karabakh officials said 47,115 people have left so far, out of an estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenian population.

Western governments fear a humanitarian disaster and are pressuring Azerbaijan to allow international observers to monitor the treatment of the local population in Karabakh.

“Transparency is needed now, and the eyes and ears of the international community are on the spot,” German Foreign Minister Annalina Bierbach posted on X.

“It will be a sign of confidence that Azerbaijan is serious about its commitments to the security and well-being of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh if ​​it allows international observers.”

Allegations

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Azerbaijan says it wants to peacefully reunify the ethnic Armenians of Karabakh and strongly rejects Armenian accusations of ethnic cleansing.

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said last week that Armenians “can finally breathe a sigh of relief” and will be able to vote, receive state education and freely practice their Christian religion in predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan. . He said that Baku would turn Karabakh into a “paradise”.

It was not clear on what grounds Vardanyan was held, but Azerbaijan has indicated that it will seek to prosecute some figures in the Karabakh leadership.

Refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh region ride on the back of a truck as they arrive in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, on September 26, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze obtained licensing rights

“We have accused elements of the criminal regime and we will bring them to justice,” Aliyev said last week, without naming anyone or specifying a crime.

Zunaband said she asked people for “prayers and support for my husband’s safe release”.

The mountain road leading from Karabakh to Armenia has been closed for days, with many people sleeping in cars or scavenging for firewood to keep warm. A journey of only 77 km (48 mi) to the border took at least 30 hours.

“I left everything behind. I don’t know what’s in store for me. I have nothing. I don’t want anything,” Vera Petrosyan, a 70-year-old retired teacher, told Reuters.

Death toll

At least 68 people were killed, 105 were missing and nearly 300 were injured in a massive explosion at a fuel station in Karabakh on Monday, local officials said. It was not clear what caused this.

Russia said its peacekeepers in the region had evacuated more than 120 people by helicopter.

Armenia is angry that Russian peacekeepers did nothing to stop Azerbaijan from launching its offensive last week after the 44-day war in 2020.

With Russia distracted by the war in Ukraine, the crisis has highlighted its diminishing ability to play the role of security guarantor in the Caucasus region, where Turkey, Iran and the United States are jockeying for influence. are competing.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, tens of thousands have been killed in wars over Karabakh, which involved both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The death toll rose further in last week’s fighting, with Karabakh officials saying they lost at least 200 people.

Azerbaijan said on Wednesday that 192 of its soldiers had been killed, and published their names and photos on the Defense Ministry’s website. More than 50 young people were in their teens.

Reuters Graphics

Written by Mark Trevelyan Editing by Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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