UN to send mission to Nagorno-Karabakh as exodus nears 100,000

By Benjamin Brown, Aren Melikyan and Chris Lau, CNN

CNN  —  The United Nations is to send a mission to Nagorno-Karabakh this weekend, its first access to the disputed region in about 30 years, amid reports that nearly 80 percent of the population have been displaced.

The announcement follows Azerbaijan’s “anti-terrorist” campaign in the Armenian-controlled territory which left at least 200 people dead and 400 others wounded during a lightning 24-hour assault last week.

Concerns over the future of the region – internationally seen as part of Azerbaijan though under the control of Armenian separatists for decades – and its residents linger despite a ceasefire brokered by Russia.

The Azerbaijani victory last week triggered a huge exodus of ethnic Armenians living in the breakaway region and marked the end of decades of conflict. It also potentially marked the end of centuries of Armenian presence, after its president signed a decree dissolving state institutions following its defeat.

By 6pm local time on Friday, nearly 98,000 people had left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia, according to Armenian state media, citing the prime minister’s spokesperson Nazeli Baghdasaryan.

That accounts for 80 percent of the estimated population of 120,000 people in the ethnic Armenian enclave.

Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric said during a press briefing on Friday that the mission’s visit had been agreed by Azerbaijan and would go ahead over the weekend.

“We haven’t had access there in about 30 years. So it’s very important that we will be able to get in,” he said.

“While there, the team will seek to assess the situation on the ground and identify the humanitarian needs for both people remaining and the people that are on the move,” the spokesperson added.

Vehicles carrying refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh head toward the Armenian border on September 25, 2023.

Fears of ‘punitive actions’

Armenian authorities have responded to the outflux of people by asking the International Court of Justice, a judicial arm of the UN, to tell Azerbaijan to withdraw its troops – citing fears of “punitive actions.”

They requested the court order Azerbaijan to “withdraw all military and law-enforcement personnel from all civilian establishments in Nagorno-Karabakh,” while refraining from “taking any actions directly or indirectly” that would have the effect of displacing the remaining ethnic Armenians or preventing those who fled from returning.

Azerbaijan should also allow people to leave the region “without any hindrance” if they wanted to, the Armenian authorities demanded.

Armenia also asked the court to direct Azerbaijan to grant the UN and the Red Cross access to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan should “refrain from taking punitive actions against the current or former political representatives or military personnel of Nagorno-Karabakh,” the Armenian authorities said.

Commanders detained

The appeal comes as Azerbaijani state media reported Friday that the security services in the country had detained two former commanders of the self-proclaimed “Republic of Artsakh’s” military.

Loven Mnatsakanyan and Davit Manukyan were intercepted while attempting to cross from Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia via the Lachin Corridor, the one road connecting the landlocked enclave to Armenia.

Mnatsakanyan, who reportedly served as defense minister from 2015 to 2018, was arrested Friday and taken to the Azebaijani capital of Baku, according to state media. He was accused of illegally entering its territory.

Manukyan, who reportedly served as the former deputy commander of Nagorno-Karbakh’s armed forces, was detained Wednesday, Azerbaijani state media reported.

He was accused of engaging in terrorism, setting up illegal armed groups, illegal possession of a firearm, and illegally entering Azerbaijan, though no evidence was presented to support the claims.

A video published by Azerbaijan’s State Security Service showing Manukyan in Azerbaijani detention could not be independently verified by CNN.

The announcement of the arrests came after the indictment of prominent Nagorno-Karabakh politician and businessman Ruben Vardanyan on multiple charges in Azerbaijan Thursday after being detained while trying to cross into Armenia the day before, according to state media citing the Azerbaijani State Security Service.

A former Minister of State of the self-proclaimed republic, Vardanyan is accused of financing terrorism, participating in the creation and activities of illegal armed groups, and illegally crossing Azerbaijani borders, according to state media. Azerbaijan has not presented evidence to support its claims.

On Thursday, local politician David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled “Republic of Artsakh,” wrote on Telegram that he would hand himself over to Azerbaijan.

“My failure to appear, or worse, my escape, will cause serious harm to our long-suffering nation, to many people, and I, as an honest person, hard worker, patriot and Christian, cannot allow this,” Babayan wrote.

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