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Armenian Christians in Karabakh head to airport after ceasefire deal forces surrender

by Reuters Journalist

Thousands of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday gathered at the airport where some Russian peacekeepers are based, after separatist forces agreed to a ceasefire, surrendering the territory to Azerbaijan.

Pictures from Karabakh showed thousands of people at the airport, some with young children. Separatists running the self-styled "Republic of Artsakh" urged the population of 120,000 not to rush to the airport in the capital which they call Stepanakert.

"We once again urge the population of Stepanakert not to succumb to panic and not to go to the airport on their own initiative in order to evacuate," the separatists said. 

Azerbaijan has been accused of wanting to ethnically cleanse Karabakh, which Baku denies.

Armenians, who are Christians, claim a long historical dominance in the area, dating back to several centuries before Christ.  Karabakh, a mountainous area in the volatile wider South Caucasus region, is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it has been run by separatist Armenian authorities who say the area is their ancestral homeland.

Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had halted military action in the region following the ceasefire, which was confirmed by both sides and effective from 1 p.m. (0900 GMT) on Wednesday.  Under the agreement separatist forces must disband and disarm.  Talks on the future of the region and the ethnic Armenians who live there will start on Thursday. 

Fearful of what the future might hold, crowds of ethnic Armenians made their way to the airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh which is known as Khankendi by Azerbaijan. Others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers.

Azerbaijan, has said it plans to integrate the area's 120,000 ethnic Armenians and that their rights would be protected under the constitution. 

But some Armenians are sceptical and neighbouring Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of trying to ethnically cleanse the territory, something Baku denies. 

"They are basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan - this is basically a typical ethnical cleansing operation," Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in Karabakh's ethnic Armenian administration, told Reuters.

Wednesday's outcome, a military victory for Turkey-backed Azerbaijan whose forces far outnumbered the separatists, could cause political turmoil in neighbouring Armenia, where some political forces are angry that Yerevan was unable to do more to protect the Karabakh Armenians.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was already facing calls on Wednesday from some opponents to resign.

Some Armenians are also furious that Russia, which has peacekeepers on the ground and helped broker an earlier ceasefire deal in 2020 following a 44-day war, was unable to stop Azerbaijan.        

The Kremlin rejected that criticism on Wednesday and President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that Russian peacekeepers would protect Karabakh's civilian population.

It was unclear how many ethnic Armenians would opt to stay in Karabakh. 

Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannissyan told Reuters that Karabakh Armenians could "in an ideal world" live under Azerbaijani rule but that historical experience made it hard to imagine. 

Azerbaijan's military operation had faced sharp criticism from the United States and some European countries, who said the Karabakh problem should have been solved through talks and that Baku's actions were worsening an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground following a nine-month blockade of the area by Azerbaijan.

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