Azerbaijan seeks 'war crime' suspects in sea of Karabakh refugees, fuel blast kills 20

Azerbaijan seeks 'war crime' suspects in sea of Karabakh refugees, fuel blast kills 20
Azerbaijan is seeking Armenian fighters from Nagorno-Karabakh which it says committed war crimes, as the region's ethnic Armenians continue to flee following Baku's military victory last week.
5 min read
26 September, 2023
The number of people who entered Armenia has now surpassed 19,000 [Getty]

Azerbaijani border guards on Tuesday sought out "war crime" suspects in a sea of Armenian refugees flooding out of Nagorno-Karabakh after Baku claimed control of the separatist statelet in a lightning offensive last week.

The number of people who entered Armenia along the so-called Lachin Corridor following the operation has now surpassed 19,000, and was growing one day after a massive fuel blast on the edge of the rebel stronghold of Stepanakert rose to 20.

The toll threatened to rise because dozens were being treated in critical condition and many remained unaccounted for.

Most of the victims were stocking up on fuel for the trip down the only road connecting the impoverished and historically disputed region with Armenia.

Yerevan has warned of possible "ethnic cleansing" by Azerbaijan - a close ally of Armenia's arch-nemesis Turkey - after Baku launched a 24-hour blitz that forced the rebels to agree to disarm last Wednesday.

Armenians, mostly Christian, and Azerbaijanis, mostly Muslim, have fought two deadly wars over the mountainous territory since the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse.

The area is now populated by up to 120,000 ethnic Armenians but is internationally recognised as part Azerbaijan.

The bad blood between the sides runs deep, with the first war in particular witnessing alleged massacres of civilians and gross human rights abuses by both sides.

An AFP team allowed to access the Lachin Corridor on an Azerbaijani government-organised tour saw that most of the people crossing the border were women, children and the elderly.

The few Armenian men in their 20s and 30s coming out Tuesday were forced to stare into a camera for identification at the last Azerbaijani border post.

"Azerbaijan intends to apply an amnesty to Armenian fighters who laid down their arms in Karabakh," an Azerbaijani government source told AFP.

"But those who committed war crimes during the Karabakh wars must be handed over to us," the source said.


'We fought well'

Armenia said early Tuesday that more than 19,000 refugees had fled since the first group arrived in the country on Sunday.

AFP reporters on both sides of the border saw hundreds of cars piled high with belongings moving slowly along the jam-packed road.

Some of the vehicles crept along on flat tyres and many simply walked past the last Azerbaijani checkpoint.

"They expelled us," one man said as he walked past the Azerbaijani soldiers.

Yanik Zakaryan, 37, took part in last week's fighting.

Now he was resting on the Armenian side of the border, grateful to Russian peacekeepers who have been patrolling the region since Azerbaijan clawed back swathes of the disputed territory in a six-week war in 2020.

"We fought well, but at one point we found ourselves surrounded," Zakaryan told AFP. "The Russians came to get us out."



Adding to the humanitarian drama, the separatist government on Tuesday said 13 bodies were found at the scene of a fuel depot blast on Monday and seven more people had died of their injuries.

It said 290 people had been hospitalised and "dozens of patients remain in critical condition".

Armenia's health ministry said it had sent a team of doctors to the rebel stronghold of Stepanakert by helicopter.

The Azerbaijani presidency said Baku had also sent medicine to help the wounded, and opened a special humanitarian corridor for Red Cross teams.

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The European Union pledged to provide five million euros in humanitarian assistance.

The victims' treatment was being complicated by shortages of medication that emerged during a nine-month blockade Azerbaijan had imposed to bring the region to heel.

Azerbaijan turned on the electricity of the rebel stronghold Stepanakert on Sunday, switching it to its own power grid as part of a "reintegration" drive.

Envoys from Baku and Yerevan were in Brussels on Tuesday to pave the way for the first meeting between their leaders since last week's offensive on October 5.


Stay or go?

The separatists said Tuesday that said 208 people had died in last week's fighting.

The sides have since held two rounds of closed-door talks mediated by Russia focused on putting the region under Baku's control.

But Azerbaijan's forces have still not entered Stepanakert, occupying the strategic hights overlooking the rebel stronghold.

Many there are tormented by debates on whether to stay or go, which have also spilled out onto social media.

Some say that they cannot live under the authority of Azerbaijanis, while others argue that leaving now means that Armenians might never be able to return, losing the region for good.

Sveta Moussaylyan, 50, said this was the fourth time she has been forced to move due to decades of strife and changes in control over tiny hamlets.

"I'm not that old, but I've already seen so much!" she said.