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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Death toll rises after explosion at Nagorno-Karabakh fuel depot

Death toll from an explosion at a fuel storage depot in Azerbaijan-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, a region primarily inhabited by Armenians, climbed to 68, according to the Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman.

By Ivan Nechepurenko

At least 68 people were killed and 105 remained missing after an explosion at a fuel depot in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, the region’s government said earlier this week. The blast occurred as ethnic Armenians rushing to leave the region were lining up to refuel their cars after a military offensive by Azerbaijan last week.

The revised death toll came after an earlier statement by Armenia’s health minister, Anahit Avanesyan, at a news conference Tuesday in which she said that the remains of 125 people had been transferred from Nagorno-Karabakh to forensic centers in Armenia. At least 67 injured people were moved to the country’s national burn center, she added.

The human rights ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, Gegham Stepanyan, later explained in the government’s official channel on the Telegram messaging app that the 125 were war-related deaths. The Armenian Health Ministry also later published a clarification on Facebook.

More than 28,000 people have fled Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia in the past week, part of a mass exodus that began after a sudden military offensive brought the enclave back under Azerbaijan’s control. The shift in power has raised fears of ethnic violence in a region where decades of interethnic hatred have fueled wars, population shifts and atrocities.

The explosion at the fuel depot Monday produced a large fire that lit up the night sky near the region’s capital, Stepanakert, and the cause was not immediately clear.

As of 11 p.m. Tuesday local time, the number of deaths confirmed by the Stepanakert Forensic Medical Examination Bureau as a result of the explosion stood at 68, with the identity of 21 victims confirmed.

Earlier, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Health Ministry said in a statement that emergency workers had taken 290 patients “with various degrees of burns” to four medical facilities after the blast Monday night.

Seven of those people died, and 13 bodies were recovered at the site and taken to a forensics office, the ministry said. Dozens of patients were still in critical condition, it added.

The sudden influx of victims added to the stress on medical facilities that were already filled to over capacity before the explosion, according to the ministry and a statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The committee said that in addition to delivering medical supplies, including specialized burn kits, its teams were helping to arrange medical evacuations by ambulance.

Many more ethnic Armenians were on their way, stuck in the long line of cars, trucks and other vehicles navigating a single, winding mountain road to the border.

Standing on Tuesday amid the chaos of a makeshift refugee camp in Kornidzor, the first village on the Armenian side of the border, Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, urged the government of Azerbaijan to “grant full and unimpeded access” into villages and towns in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Power said the U.S. government would provide $11.5 million in aid, including food and psychological assistance, in the growing emergency. But she also said that she had heard “troubling reports of violence against civilians” and that she would relay the testimonies to the administration in Washington.

While the process of gathering evidence was just beginning, Power said, she did not rule out sanctions against Azerbaijan if evidence supported the claims. “There are a range of options under active consideration,” Power told reporters.

As she spoke, ambulances raced past ferrying patients and aid, and a stream of cars, buses, heavy-duty trucks and tractors — each packed with people, bags containing basic possessions and sometimes animals — continued to pour out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The exodus of ethnic Armenians started Sunday, quickly filling the central square of Goris, a town across the border in Armenia. Hour after hour, people looking for shelter and other help poured in, their faces showing both the shock of the hurried journey they had completed and anxiety and confusion about what awaits them.

Edik Aloyan was riding on a huge Soviet Ural truck, sitting on plastic bags and smoking as the vehicle sped away from his ancestral homeland in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“I just took whatever I could, very quickly, just a few shirts,” said Aloyan, 62, adding that he had only half an hour to pack for the trip out of his native Martakert.

The Armenian government said 28,000 displaced people had entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh as of Tuesday night. The breakaway region’s government urged people fleeing the enclave not to rush because all roads in Nagorno-Karabakh had been blocked with traffic.

Recent refugees in Goris said it had taken them up to a full day to get out, and a long line of cars on a serpentine road was visible from the Armenian side of the border. Some refugees traveled in heavy-duty vehicles more commonly used to carry sand and gravel, but now had children, the old and the sick sitting together amid their modest possessions.

Some who had crossed into Armenia said they had trouble reaching relatives and friends still on the other side of the border. A few feared people they knew could have been affected by the deadly fuel explosion Monday.

Military doctors who are part of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh reported on their Telegram messaging account that they were providing emergency assistance to those injured in the explosion. They said 23 people with burns of varying severity had been delivered to the Russian contingent’s medical unit. In a separate post, Russian peacekeepers said they were using their military helicopters to transfer more severely wounded people to Armenia.

Stepanyan, who was elected to the role by the breakaway republic’s lawmakers, said Monday that most of the victims of the explosion were in severe condition, without providing other details, and warned that the region did not have adequate medical facilities.

Authorities in Azerbaijan put their new control of the region on display Tuesday as Hikmet Hajiyev, a high-ranking official, posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, showing Azerbaijani police officers distributing water to fleeing Armenians.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis had lived relatively peacefully around Nagorno-Karabakh, a region the size of Rhode Island in the South Caucasus, for decades until the fall of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Armenians took control of the region in 1994 with the backing of the Armenian military.

Azerbaijan led a 44-day war in 2020 against the ethnic Armenian leadership, gaining control of most of the region. Last December, Azerbaijan installed a blockade to the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, cutting off the region from food and fuel supplies and worsening a humanitarian crisis.

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