Nagorno-Karabakh: Explosion kills 68 - as thousands flee over ethnic cleansing fears

At least 68 people have been killed and 105 more are missing after a powerful blast at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Azerbaijani media.

The explosion happened as people fleeing the disputed region to Armenia lined up for fuel, separatist authorities said.

Earlier, 20 people were confirmed to have died. It is not immediately clear what caused the blast.

Hundreds of others were reportedly injured in the explosion which happened near the regional capital of Stepanakert on Monday.

Thousands of ethnic Armenians are leaving the territory, saying they fear ethnic cleansing after the Azerbaijani military reclaimed control of it last week.

Lightning operation

The Azerbaijani military took control of the region in a 24-hour lightning operation last week, ending three decades of separatist rule.

At least 19,000 of the 120,000 resident ethnic Armenians have fled to Armenia so far, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Khachatryan was quoted by Russia's TASS news agency as saying. That amounts to roughly 16% of the population.

Armenia claims the mass exodus is due to a fear of reprisals - something strongly denied by Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has vowed to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region and to restore supplies after a 10-month blockade.

Those lining up at the fuel facility were reportedly waiting for gas. It has been a scarcity alongside basic food and supplies since the blockade, according to Armenia.

Read more on Sky News:
Thousands of ethnic Armenians flee Nagorno-Karabakh

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The US has called on Azerbaijan to protect the rights of civilians.

"We are calling on Azerbaijan to maintain the ceasefire and take concrete steps to protect the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh," US Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power told reporters in Armenia's capital Yerevan.

"We have heard very troubling reports of violence against civilians. At the same time given the chaos here and the trauma, the gathering of testimonies... of the people who have come across is something that is just beginning," Ms Power said.

The Azerbaijani offensive last week forced separatist authorities to agree to lay down weapons and start talks on Nagorno-Karabakh's "reintegration" into Azerbaijan.

Two rounds of talks between Azerbaijani officials and separatist representatives have taken place so far. The first was said to have focused on humanitarian aid and medical services.

Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, after a six-year war that ended in 1994.

Azerbaijan retook parts of Nagorno-Karabakh back in 2020 and completely reclaimed surrounding territory that it lost earlier.

Under a deal that ended the 2020 fighting, Russia deployed a peacekeeping force to the region.