A UN mission arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday, for the first time in three decades, Azerbaijan announced, at a time when the majority of the local Armenian population left the enclave after its recapture by Baku.
A spokesperson for the Azerbaijani presidency told AFP that the UN mission had arrived "Sunday morning" with the main task of assessing the humanitarian needs on the spot.
This mission visited a checkpoint on the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, a spokesperson for the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at the end of the day. He said the mission, led by Vladanka Andreeva, UN resident coordinator in Azerbaijan, was expected to hold a press conference on Monday.
For her part, the head of French diplomacy, Catherine Colonna, announced that she would travel to Armenia on Tuesday to “reaffirm France’s support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Armenia”.
Paris had deplored that Azerbaijan had only consented to the UN mission after the mass exodus of Armenians. Armenian separatists, who controlled Nagorno-Karabakh for three decades after the breakup of the USSR, capitulated last week, facing a lightning offensive from Azerbaijan which left nearly 600 dead in its wake.
Since then, the enclave has been deserted by its inhabitants, with more than 100.000 refugees - out of the 120.000 inhabitants actually living there - having fled to Armenia for fear of reprisals from Azerbaijan, raising fears of a major humanitarian crisis.
“People have to live”
On Sunday, the border post between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, located on the Lachin corridor, the only road which connects the two territories, was deserted, noted an AFP journalist. Sergei Astsarian, 40, is among the last to leave.
“The population that has lived here for centuries should be able to live here, regardless of whether they are Armenians or other ethnicities. It is not right to expel, by force or not,” he told the AFP. According to him, the Azerbaijani government must show concretely that the Armenian populations can remain safe in the enclave and not just give "verbal guarantees".
The Azerbaijani presidency announced on Sunday that a migration service had started operating in the main city of Nagorno-Karabakh, Khankendi (Stepanakert in Armenian) to register the remaining residents and ensure "their sustainable reintegration" into Azerbaijani society.
The central government has "also started to establish appropriate medical services" in the city, the statement said. Nazeli Baghdasaryan, spokesperson for the Armenian Prime Minister, for his part indicated that "the transfer of forcibly displaced people is nearing its end, with 100.514 refugees arriving in Armenia" on Sunday evening.
Among them, 47.322 are in housing provided by the State, she added. The day before, the former rights ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, Artak Beglarian, claimed that only “a few hundred civil servants, emergency workers and people with special needs” remained there.
In their escape, at least 170 people died in Monday's explosion at a fuel depot, which also left 349 injured, most of them suffering from serious burns.
Day of prayer
Armenia, with a Christian majority, for its part celebrated a day of prayer for Nagorno-Karabakh on Sunday. In Yerevan, Saint-Sarkis Cathedral was, according to the faithful, usually full on Sunday morning.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh "is just politics, not a matter of religion: Azerbaijan is a dictatorship, oil and gas and Europe does not need us", he told AFP Ararat Havseian, an Iranian-Armenian. On Sunday, Pope Francis called for “dialogue” between Azerbaijan and Armenia to put an end to “the humanitarian crisis”, with the support of the international community.
The chaotic flow of refugees has sparked accusations of "ethnic cleansing" and Yerevan has launched a new appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), demanding urgent measures to protect the enclave's inhabitants.
Azerbaijan refutes these accusations and assures residents of the enclave that they are free to leave or stay, Hikmet Hajiyev, an advisor to the Azerbaijani president, told AFP on Saturday.
“We preferentially refrain from putting up Azerbaijani flags, we know that there are still civilians and we know their fears,” he declared.
Negotiations next week
Talks between Azerbaijani officials and Armenian officials from the enclave are planned for Monday in Stepanakert. Negotiations between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian are also expected on Thursday in Granada in Spain, under Western mediation, to resolve their historic differences.
The refugees' fears are fueled, according to Yerevan, by a series of "illegal arrests", although the Azerbaijani authorities have committed to allowing rebels to leave if they surrender their weapons. Several officials from the enclave have been detained, accused of “terrorism” and other crimes.
On Sunday, Azerbaijani Prosecutor General Kamran Aliev announced an investigator into possible war crimes committed by 300 separatist officials whom he called to surrender to authorities.
The Editorial Board (with AFP)