Nagorno-Karabakh: Explosion at fuel depot kills 20 as refugees rise

  • Sarah Rainsford in Gores, Armenia and Thomas Mackintosh in London
  • BBC News

image caption,

Rescue and medical personnel work after an explosion at a gas warehouse near the Stepanakert-Eskira highway in Barkadzor on September 26.

Local ethnic Armenian officials say an explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh has killed 20 people and injured hundreds.

About 300 people were admitted to hospitals, dozens of them are said to be in critical condition.

It comes as the Armenian government said 19,000 refugees have entered the country from the enclave since local forces surrendered to Azerbaijan.

The disputed territory is home to approximately 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

It is still unclear what caused the explosion near the main town of Khankandi, known to Armenians as Stepanakert, on Monday evening.

Petrol stations are overflowing as thousands of people try to leave the region, which is already running short of fuel after a month-long blockade.

The only road connecting Armenia to the enclave is lined with hundreds of cars and buses, packed with ethnic Armenians trying to get across the border to the city of Gores.

The mountain road running from Goris to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, is also heavy with traffic before dawn.

A BBC team saw families cramming into cars, shoes packed and roof racks piled high with belongings. Convinced that they are leaving their homes, people are pouring more and more of their lives into their cars.

Inside Gores, a small town as dusty brown as the dusty mountains that surround it, the narrow streets are filled with more cars and more families. One arrived in a car with little more than tape, the side badly dented and riddled with knife holes, and the windows broken.

Malik told the BBC that he was hit by mortar fire when Azerbaijan launched a lightning strike to take control of the area last week. “But it still brought us here,” he said, surrounded by smiling toddlers.

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A family traveled from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in their heavily damaged car.

At the city’s main square, people are unsure of what to do next. Volunteers provide some basic food and blankets.

Migrants are registered and there is an occasional bus to take people to another town or village. But few seem to have any plans other than to get to that point.

Milena left her husband’s grave in her village. He died shortly after the six-week war in 2020, the latest violence before that month.

She says her nerves are gone. As we speak, she keeps an eye on four grandchildren playing nearby. They understand that this trip is temporary, that they will eventually go home like last time, and Milena doesn’t want to bother them with the truth just yet.

For two days last week, they all huddled in their basement as their village was engulfed in flames. After the Karabakh forces surrendered, Milena says local authorities told everyone to flee to Armenia for safety. Their village in the Martakart region of Nagorno-Karabakh is now empty.

Malina says her family left because – whatever the assurances – they would not feel safe under Azerbaijani rule.

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Milena says she and her grandchildren fled to find safety.

Despite Azerbaijan’s public assurances, there are concerns about residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, since the separatists accepted a ceasefire and agreed to disarm, only one aid shipment of 70 tons of food has been allowed.

Azerbaijan announced that another aid convoy, containing 40 tons of flour and much-needed hygiene products, was on its way to the enclave.

Ethnic-Armenian leaders say thousands are without food or shelter and are sleeping outside in basements, school buildings or outside.

In a statement on Tuesday, local authorities said doctors were working in “difficult and cramped conditions” to save the lives of those injured in the explosion at the fuel depot, adding that 290 patients were hospitalized. Those with various degrees of burns are being treated.

He said that 13 unidentified bodies were found from the blast site and seven more people died in the hospital.

Human rights ombudsman Gigum Stepanyan wrote on social media: “The health condition of the majority is serious or very serious. Nagorno-Karabakh’s medical capacities are not sufficient.”

Armenia’s health ministry said it was sending helicopters to evacuate patients from strained hospitals in the region. Azerbaijan also said it had sent medical supplies.

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Nagorno-Karabakh: Voices of Armenians Fleeing.

“It’s happening now, and it is [a] A very unfortunate fact, because we were trying to emphasize this to the international community,” Nikol Pashinyan told reporters.

But Azerbaijan has said it wants to reintegrate ethnic Armenians as “equal citizens”.

The head of the US Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, called on Azerbaijan to “take concrete steps to uphold the ceasefire and protect the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh”.

He said the international community should be given access to the region and $11.5 million ($9.5 million) in US aid should be announced to help those fleeing.

Ambassadors of Armenia and Azerbaijan meet in Brussels for EU-backed talks.

This is the first time that diplomatic talks have taken place between the two countries since Azerbaijan seized the enclave last week.

Both sides will be represented by their National Security Advisers.

Azerbaijan has also begun separate talks with the ethnic-Armenian authorities of Karabakh about the region’s future.

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The BBC’s Natalia Zotova reports from the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh – a mountainous region in the South Caucasus – is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for three decades.

The enclave is supported by Armenia – but also by its ally Russia, which has been running a peacekeeping mission there for the past three years.

Five Russian peacekeepers were killed in an attack by the Azerbaijani army last week – along with at least 200 ethnic Armenians and dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers.

On Sunday, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said it had seized more military equipment, including large quantities of rockets, artillery shells, mines and ammunition.

Armenia-Azerbaijan: Nagorno-Karabakh map

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