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U.S. calls on Azerbaijan to safeguard Armenians as thousands flee Karabakh

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-Hungry and exhausted Armenian families jammed roads to flee homes in the defeated breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, while the United States called on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and let in aid.

The Armenians of Karabakh – part of Azerbaijan beyond Baku’s control since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – began fleeing this week after their forces were routed in a lightning military operation by Azerbaijan’s military.

At least 13,550 of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians who call Nagorno-Karabakh home arrived in Armenia on the first day of the exodus, with hundreds of cars and buses crammed with belongings snaking down the mountain road out of Azerbaijan.

Some fled packed into the back of open-topped trucks, others on tractors. Grandmother of four Narine Shakaryan arrived in her son-in-law’s old car with 6 people packed inside. The 77km drive had taken 24 hours, she said. They had had no food.

“The whole way the children were crying, they were hungry,” Shakaryan told at the border, carrying her 3-year old granddaughter, who she said had become ill during the journey.

“We left so we would stay alive, not to live.”

As Armenians rushed to leave the Karabakh capital, known as Stepanakert by Armenia and Khankendi by Azerbaijan, fuel stations were overwhelmed by panic buying. The authorities there said at least 20 people were killed and 290 injured in a massive blaze when a fuel storage facility blew up on Monday.

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power, in the Armenian capital Yerevan, called on Azerbaijan “to maintain the ceasefire and take concrete steps to protect the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Power, who earlier handed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan a letter of support from U.S. President Joe Biden, said Azerbaijan’s use of force was unacceptable and that Washington was looking at an appropriate response.

She called on Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to live up to his promise to protect ethnic Armenian rights, fully reopen the Lachin corridor that connects the region to Armenia and let in aid deliveries and an international monitoring mission.

Aliyev has pledged to guarantee the safety of Karabakh’s Armenians but said his iron fist had consigned the idea of the region’s independence to history.

‘NOWHERE TO GO’

Ethnic Armenians who managed to get to Armenia gave harrowing accounts of fleeing death, war and hunger.

Some said they saw many dead civilians – one said truckloads. Others, some with young children, broke down in tears as they described a tragic odyssey of running from war, sleeping on the ground and with hunger churning in their bellies.

“We took what we could and left. We don’t know where we’re going. We have nowhere to go,” Petya Grigoryan, a 69-year-old driver, told in the border town of Goris on Sunday.

was unable to independently verify accounts of the military operation inside Karabakh. Azerbaijan has said it targeted only Karabakh fighters.

USAID’s Power said the world would learn more soon about the severity of conditions in Karabakh and what people had gone through there that had prompted them to leave.

BALANCE OF POWER

The Azerbaijani victory changes the balance of power in the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnicities crisscrossed with oil and gas pipelines where Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran are jostling for influence.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia had relied on a security partnership with Russia, while Azerbaijan grew close to Turkey, with which it shares linguistic and cultural ties.

Armenia has lately sought closer ties with the West and blames Russia, which had peacekeepers in Karabakh but is now preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, for failing to protect Karabakh. Moscow denies blame and has told Pashinyan that he is making a big mistake by flirting with the United States.

Aliyev hinted on Monday at the prospect of creating a land corridor to Turkey across Armenia.

Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, told Washington to stop stoking anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia.

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