GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 100,000 refugees have arrived in Armenia since Azerbaijan’s military operation to retake control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the United nations said, while thousands more endured long hours of delay in a huge traffic jam at the border.
“Many are hungry, exhausted and need immediate assistance,” Filippo Grandi, head of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said on social media late on Friday. “International help is very urgently required.”
Italy said Armenia had asked the European Union for temporary shelters and medical supplies to help it deal with the refugees.
Siranush Sargsyan, a freelance journalist who has been reporting on the flight of the ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, told Reuters thousands of people, their belongings crammed into cars, trucks and tractors, were stuck on the mountain highway leading to Armenia.
Many required urgent medical attention, Sargsyan said. “As you can see, we are still stuck on the road.”
“This exodus is already unbearable physically because we have already spent 16 hours on this road… It seems in the next 24 hours we still won’t be able to reach the border.”
Following a lightning Azerbaijani offensive that returned the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, many of Karabakh’s 120,000 Armenians began what became a mass exodus towards Armenia, saying they feared persecution and ethnic cleansing despite Azerbaijan’s promises of safety.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated mainly by Armenian Christians who set up the self-styled Republic of Artsakh three decades ago after a bloody ethnic conflict as the Soviet Union collapsed.
One refugee vowed to return home eventually.
“The world should not believe that we are willingly leaving Artsakh, ever,” she said. “We fought till the very end, with our blood, with our lives to protect our country.”
Azerbaijan said that one of its servicemen was killed by sniper fire from Armenian forces in the border district of Kalbajar, but the alleged incident was denied by Armenia.
(Reporting by Emma Farge, Angelo Amante and Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Christina Fincher)