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Azerbaijan arrests former top Karabakh minister as exodus tops 50,000

Azerbaijan arrests former top Karabakh minister as exodus tops 50,000
September 27, 2023 Web Desk

GORIS, Armenia (Reuters) - A former head of the breakaway ethnic Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh was arrested by Azerbaijan on Wednesday as he tried to escape into Armenia as part of an exodus of tens of thousands of people that has triggered a humanitarian crisis.

Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire banker and philanthropist, headed Karabakh's separatist government between November 2022 and February 2023. His wife Veronika Zonabend said on his Telegram channel that he had been arrested while trying to flee as part of a mass departure by ethnic Armenians after Azerbaijan took back control of Karabakh in a lightning offensive last week.

Azerbaijan's border service said he had been taken to the capital Baku and handed over to other state agencies. Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians who broke away in the 1990s in the first of two wars there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country, says it wants to peacefully reintegrate the Armenians and will guarantee their civic rights, including to practise their Christian religion. It says no one is forcing them to leave. But given the bloody history between the two sides, ethnic Armenians are fleeing in fear, abandoning their homes and boarding cars and trucks that have jammed the snaking mountain road that leads to Armenia.

Karabakh authorities said more than 50,000 had left so far, out of an estimated ethnic Armenian population of 120,000. Azerbaijan rejects Armenian accusations of ethnic cleansing, but images of tens of thousands of desperate people on the move have provoked widespread international alarm.

The European Union said it was sending more humanitarian aid "in solidarity with those who had no choice but to flee" - a significant change from an earlier statement where it referred to people who had "decided to flee". UN special rapporteur Morris Tidball-Binz said Azerbaijan must "promptly and independently investigate alleged or suspected violations of the right to life reported in the context of its latest military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh".

Germany added its voice to US calls for Azerbaijan to allow international observers into Karabakh. "What is needed now is transparency, and the eyes and ears of the international community on the spot," Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock posted on X, formerly Twitter.