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Azerbaijan arrests former senior Karabakh official amid growing Armenian exodus

The former head of the government of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh was arrested by Azerbaijan on Wednesday when tried to flee to Armenia with other Armenians.

Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire banker and philanthropist, headed Karabakh’s separatist government from November 2022 to February 2023.

His wife, Veronika Zonabend, posted in her Telegram channel that was arrested while trying to flee during a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians after Azerbaijan had regained control of the territory last week.

Azerbaijan’s border service informed he was taken to the capital Baku and handed over to other state agencies.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an internationally recognised part of Azerbaijan, but is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians who broke away in the 1990s as a result of the first of two wars taking place after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fearing reprisals from Azerbaijan, ethnic Armenians are leaving their homes and fleeing en masse fleeing en masse in cars and trucks along the mountain road leading to Armenia. Karabakh authorities stated 47,115 people out of an estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians had fled the country so far.

Western governments fear a new humanitarian crisis and insist that Azerbaijan allow international observers to monitor the situation in Karabakh.

What is needed now is transparency, and the eyes and ears of the international community on the spot. It would be a sign of confidence that Azerbaijan is serious about its commitments to the security and wellbeing of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh if it allows international observers.

Azerbaijan claims it wants to peacefully reintegrate ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh and categorically rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said last week that Armenians would “finally breathe a sigh of relief” and be able to vote, receive public education and freely practice their Christian religion in predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan. He promised that Baku would turn Karabakh into a “paradise.”

The grounds for Vardanyan’s detention remain unspoken, but Azerbaijan has signalled that it will prosecute certain figures in the Karabakh leadership.

We have accused elements of the criminal regime and we will bring them to justice.

The mountain road leading from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia has been jammed for days, with many people sleeping in cars or looking for firewood to keep warm. The journey of just 77 kilometres (48 miles) to the border takes at least 30 hours.

I left everything behind. I don’t know what is in store for me. I have nothing. I don’t want anything.

This is how Vera Petrosyan, a 70-year-old retired teacher, commented on the situation to Reuters.

At least 68 people were killed, 105 missing and nearly 300 injured in a powerful explosion at a petrol station in Karabakh on Monday, according to local reports. The cause of the blast remains unknown.

Russia claimed its peacekeepers managed to evacuate more than 120 people by helicopter.

Azerbaijan said on Wednesday that 192 of its soldiers had been killed, publishing their names and pictures on the Defence Ministry’s website.

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