(LONDON) -- At least 75,500 ethnic Armenian refugees have now fled Nagorno-Karabakh, more than half the disputed enclave's population, according to local authorities, as the exodus from the region continues to accelerate.
It is feared the enclave's whole population will likely flee in the coming days, unwilling to remain under Azerbaijan's rule following its successful military offensive last week that defeated the ethnic Armenian separatist authorities and restored Azerbaijan's control after over three decades.
The leader of Nagorno-Karabakh's unrecognized Armenian state, the Republic of Artsakh, on Thursday announced its dissolution, signing a decree that it will "cease to exist" by Jan. 1, 2024.
De facto President Samvel Shahramanyan signed the decree declaring that "all state institutions" will be dissolved.
A statement describing the decree said based on the ceasefire agreement last week, Azerbaijan would allow the unhindered travel of all residents, including military personnel who laid down their arms. The local population should make their own decisions about the "possibility of staying (or returning)," the statement said.
The decree marks an end to Armenian control over the enclave, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and has been at the center of one of the world's most intractable conflicts for 35 years.
Ethnic Armenians have lived for centuries in Nagorno-Karabakh. The current conflict dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Armenian separatists declared the republic and tried to break away from Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan waged a bloody war over the enclave that saw hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani civilians driven from the region and ended with the ethnic Armenians in control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan reopened the conflict in 2020, defeating Armenia and forcing it to distance itself from the Karabakh Armenians. Russia brokered a peace agreement and deployed peacekeepers, who remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Last week, after blockading the enclave for nine months, Azerbaijan launched a new offensive that defeated the Karabakh Armenian forces in two days. Since Sunday, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenian civilians have left Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan opened the road out to Armenia.
Those leaving say they fear life under Azerbaijan will be intolerable and that they will face persecution.
Shortages of food, medicine and fuel have been reported inside the enclave. Those fleeing describe spending 30 hours in traffic jams to leave.
Siranush Sargsyan, a local freelance journalist living in Nagorno-Karabakh, told Reuters it was impossible for ethnic Armenians to remain.
"Of course I'm going to leave, because this place is too small for both of us. If they are here, we have to leave. We don't want to leave, but we don't have [any] other choice," she said.
Azerbaijan charged a former leader of the Karabakh Armenians with terrorism offenses on Thursday after detaining him a day earlier when he tried to leave the enclave with other refugees.
Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire who made his fortune in Moscow, moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022 and served as the head of its government for several months before stepping down earlier this year. A court in Azerbaijan's capital Baku charged him on Thursday with financing terrorism and creating an illegal armed group, which carries a potential maximum 14-year sentence.
The United States and other Western countries have expressed concern for the ethnic Armenian population. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev this week and urged him to provide international access to the enclave.
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