YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of Armenians streamed out of Nagorno-Karabakh after the Azerbaijani military reclaimed full control of the breakaway region while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to visit Azerbaijan Monday in a show of support to its ally.
The Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz last week, forcing the separatist authorities to agree to lay down weapons and start talks on Nagorno-Karabakh's “reintegration” into Azerbaijan after three decades of separatist rule.
While Azerbaijan pledged to respect the rights of ethnic Armenians in the region and restore supplies after a 10-month blockade, many local residents feared reprisals and said they were planning to leave for Armenia.
The Armenian government said that 4,850 Nagorno-Karabakh residents had fled to Armenia as of midday Monday.
“It was a nightmare. There are no words to describe. The village was heavily shelled. Almost no one is left in the village,” said one of the evacuees who spoke to The Associated Press in the Armenian city of Kornidzor and refused to give her name for security reasons.
Moscow said that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh were assisting the evacuation.
In an address to the nation Sunday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his government was working with international partners to protect the rights and security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“If these efforts do not produce concrete results, the government will welcome our sisters and brothers from Nagorno-Karabakh in the Republic of Armenia with every care,” he said.
Demonstrators demanding Pashinyan's resignation continued blocking the Armenian capital's main avenues Monday, engaging in occasional clashes with police that sought to disperse the protests.
Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
After a Russia-brokered armistice, a contingent of about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region to monitor it.
In December, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging that the Armenian government was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.
Armenia charged that the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s approximately 120,000 people. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged support for Armenia and Armenians, saying that France will mobilize food and medical aid for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and keep working toward a ‘’sustainable peace’’ in the region.
"France is very vigilant about Armenia’s territorial integrity because that is what is at stake,” Macron said in an interview with France-2 and TF1 television, accusing Russia of complicity with Azerbaijan and charging that Turkey threatens Armenia’s borders.
Since the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has relied on strong backing of its ally Turkey, which has offered political support and provided it with weapons.
Erdogan's office said he will travel to Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan exclave for talks with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to discuss Turkey-Azerbaijan ties and regional and global issues. Nakhchivan is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory but forms a slim border with Turkey.
During his one-day trip to the region, Erdogan will also attend the opening of a gas pipeline and a modernized military base, his office added in a statement.
Associated Press writers Aida Sultanova in London, Andrew Wilks in Istanbul and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.