Thousands of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh streamed into Armenia on Monday ahead of a summit between the leaders of Azerbaijan and ally Turkey marking Baku’s victory over the rebel enclave last week.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has blamed Russia for Azerbaijan’s swift defeat over separatists in the disputed territory, will also face more protests in Yerevan over his handling of the crisis.
Several days after the fighting, the first refugees from the breakaway state arrived in Armenia on Sunday and a total of 2,906 have so far entered the country, the Armenian government said in a statement on Monday.
AFP reporters saw the refugees crowding into a humanitarian hub set up in a local theatre in the city of Goris to register for transport and housing.
“We lived through terrible days,” said Anabel Ghulasyan, 41, from the village of Rev, known as Shalva in Azeri.
She arrived in Goris with her family by minibus, carrying her belongings in bags.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars marked by forced displacement on both sides in the last three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognised border of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan launched a lighting operation on September 19 to seize control of the territory, forcing the separatists to lay down their arms under the terms of a ceasefire agreed the following day.
The separatists have said 200 people were killed in last week’s fighting.
Six Russian peacekeepers, who had been deployed to the region as part of a deal to end a previous conflict in 2020, were among the dead.
At the refugee centre in Goris, Valentina Asryan, a 54-year-old from the village of Vank who fled with her grandchildren, said her brother-in-law was killed and several other people were injured by Azerbaijani fire.
“Who would have thought that the ‘Turks’ would come to this historic Armenian village? It’s incredible,” she said, referring to Azerbaijani forces.
She was being housed temporarily in a hotel in Goris but said she had no relatives she could stay with.
“I have nowhere to go,” she said.
At the Kornidzor border crossing on Sunday, a man in his thirties arriving with the first group of refugees said he regretted having left behind his livestock and the grave of his three-year-old daughter.
“We had 15 minutes to pack everything up… I didn’t tell her goodbye. I hope to go back,” he said.
– Pashinyan faces protests –
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev intended to cement his victory by flying to his country’s western exclave of Nakhichevan for talks Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his most important regional ally.
The two leaders are scheduled to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a new natural gas pipeline and open a modernised Azerbaijani military complex, a show of Turkish force contrasting sharply with Russia’s apparent withdrawal from the region.
Armenia’s premier on Sunday sought to deflect blame onto long-standing ally Russia, signalling a breakdown in the countries’ security pact.
In nationally televised comments, the Armenian leader said the security agreements between the two countries had proved “insufficient” to protect the country, suggesting that he would seek new alliances.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) — a Russian-dominated group comprising six post-Soviet states that had pledged to protect each other if attacked.
But Russia, bogged down in its own war in Ukraine, refused to come to Armenia’s assistance in the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, arguing that Yerevan itself had recognised the disputed region as part of Azerbaijan.
Now, Russian peacekeepers are helping Azerbaijan disarm the Karabakh rebels.
Pashinyan is under pressure at home from thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh supporters who have been rallying and blocking roads in Yerevan since Wednesday’s ceasefire deal.
They plan more disruptions over three days starting Monday, some voicing anger at Pashinyan’s pivot away from Moscow.
– ‘Seeds of animosity’ –
Meanwhile in villages in Azerbaijan close to Nagorno-Karabakhsuch such as Terter and Beylagan, locals celebrated their government’s victory over the rebels.
State television played music paying tribute to the nation and its army, and the roadsides were lined with flags and portraits of dozens of local “martyrs” killed in the fighting during the previous 30 years.
Some locals displaced by the wars said they were now hoping to return to Karabakh.
“Of course I want to go back to Karabakh, we are tired of war and fear,” said Nazakat Valiyeva, 49, a former carpet factory worker who lost her husband in the 44-day conflict in 2020.
Azad Abbasov, a schoolteacher, said ethnic Armenians and Azeris could live side by side.
“We need to remove the seeds of animosity between us,” he said, ruling out the prospect of living in a house vacated by an ethnic Armenian inhabitant.
“Let the Armenians return to their village,” he said.