Nagorno-Karabakh: Most people have left enclave for Armenia as Azerbaijan retakes control

A mass exodus of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has virtually emptied the breakaway territory after Azerbaijan took back control in a military operation.

More than 100,000 have now fled to Armenia from the disputed region, which had a population of around 120,000 before Baku launched the successful lightning offensive, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The number of vehicles to cross the Hakari Bridge, which links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, since last week has topped 21,000.

Some families were forced to queue for days because the winding mountain road that is the only route out became jammed with traffic.

Meanwhile, Armenia has asked the EU for temporary shelters and medical supplies to cope with the influx, Italy has said.

The flight of more than 80% of Nagorno-Karabakh's population has raised questions about Azerbaijan's plans for the enclave that was internationally recognised as part of its territory, but which had been run by an ethnic Armenian breakaway state since the 1990s.

Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has claimed the large-scale evacuation amounted to "a direct act of an ethnic cleansing and depriving people of their motherland".

But Azerbaijan has rejected the accusation, arguing the mass migration by the region's residents was "their personal and individual decision and has nothing to do with forced relocation".

During three decades of conflict in the region, Azerbaijan and the separatists backed by Armenia have accused each other of targeted attacks, massacres and other atrocities, fuelling suspicion and fear on both sides.

While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, many are fleeing because they do not trust the Baku government to treat them properly or guarantee their language, religion and culture.

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Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said his "iron fist" had consigned the idea of an independent ethnic Armenian Karabakh to history.

After six years of separatist fighting ended in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia.

Then, during a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of the region in the south Caucasus Mountains along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed earlier.

In December, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, accusing the Armenian government of using it for illicit weapons shipments to the region's separatist forces.

Weakened by the blockade and with Armenia's leadership distancing itself from the conflict, ethnic Armenian forces in the region agreed to lay down arms less than 24 hours after Azerbaijan began its offensive.

Talks have begun between officials in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist authorities on "reintegrating" the region into Azerbaijan.