The Nagorno-Karabakh leadership told Reuters the region’s 120,000 Armenians did not want to live as part of Azerbaijan for fear of persecution and ethnic cleansing.
Those with fuel had started to drive down the Lachin corridor toward the border with Armenia, according to a Reuters reporter in the Karabakh capital known as Stepanakert by Armenia and Khankendi by Azerbaijan.
Reuters pictures showed dozens of cars driving out of the capital toward the corridor’s mountainous curves.
The Armenians of Karabakh, a territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but previously beyond its control, were forced into a ceasefire last week after a 24-hour military operation by the much-larger Azerbaijani military.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the enclave in 30 years — with Azerbaijan gaining back swathes of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in a six-week conflict in 2020.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who backed the Azeris with weaponry in the 2020 conflict, was due on Monday to meet Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Nakhchivan — a strip of Azeri territory nestled between Armenia, Iran and Turkey.
Erdogan last week said he supported the aims of Azerbaijan’s latest military operation but played no part in it.
The Armenians are not accepting Azerbaijan’s promise to guarantee their rights as the region is integrated.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands,” David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters.
“The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilised world,” Babayan continued, adding, “Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins.”
The Armenian leaders of Karabakh said that all those made homeless by the Azerbaijani military operation and wanting to leave would be escorted to Armenia by Russian peacekeepers.
Reuters reporters near the village of Kornidzor on the Armenian border saw some heavily laden cars pass into Armenia.
Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced calls to resign for failing to save Karabakh. In an address to the nation, he stated some aid had arrived but a mass exodus looked inevitable.
“If proper conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to live in their homes and there are no effective protection mechanisms against ethnic cleansing, the likelihood is rising that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see exile from their homeland as the only way to save their lives and identity,” he said, according to an official transcript.
The situation could change the delicate 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 vie for influence.
Last week’s Azerbaijani victory appears to end one of the decades-old “frozen conflicts” of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Aliyev said his “iron fist” had consigned the idea of an independent ethnic Armenian Karabakh to history and that the region would be turned into a “paradise.”
Armenia says more than 200 people were killed and 400 wounded in the Azerbaijani military operation.