An aid convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headed to Nagorno-Karabakh on Saturday, the first since Azerbaijan retook the breakaway region three days ago, as ethnic Armenians there complained of being abandoned by the world.
The Armenians of Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, were forced to declare a ceasefire on Sept. 20 after a lightning 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.
Under the terms of the ceasefire, Russia's defense ministry said the Armenian fighters had begun handing over their weapons to Azerbaijan - including more than 800 guns and six armored vehicles - under Russian supervision. Moscow has about 2,000 peacekeepers in the area.
Azerbaijani officials resumed talks on Saturday with Samvel Shahramanyan, the head of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, as the Armenians call Karabakh, Azerbaijani media reported, but no further information was immediately available.
The mountainous region is home to around 120,000 Armenians, many of whom have been without adequate food or fuel supplies for months due to an effective blockade by Azerbaijani forces.
Russia said it had delivered more than 50 tons of food and other aid to Karabakh.
The ICRC said it had supplied 28,000 diapers as well as blankets and fuel. A Reuters witness saw a small ICRC aid convoy approaching Armenia's border with Azerbaijan on Saturday afternoon but then journalists were ordered to leave the vicinity before the trucks crossed the frontier.
More than 20 other aid trucks, bearing Armenian number plates, have been lined up along a nearby roadside since July. Azerbaijan said at the time this convoy amounted to a "provocation" and an attack on its territorial integrity.
Lack of visibility
Azerbaijan wants to integrate the long-contested region of Karabakh and has promised to protect the Armenians' rights but says they are free to leave if they prefer. Armenians say they fear they will be persecuted if they stay.
Azerbaijan's interior ministry said on Saturday its main task was ensuring the safety of the Armenian civilian population and that it was providing them with tents, hot food and medical assistance.
"We are also working on issuing documents to the Armenian population, passports and so on," ministry spokesman Elshad Hajiyev told Reuters. "There are already people who have applied to us."
US Senator Gary Peters, who visited the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on Saturday, said the situation in Karabakh required international observers and transparency from Azerbaijan.
"I think the world needs to know exactly what's happening in there," Peters, a Democrat from Michigan, told reporters. "We've heard from the Azerbaijani government that there's nothing to see, nothing to worry about, but if that’s the case then we should allow international observers in to see."
Armenia, which lost a 2020 war to Azerbaijan over the region, has prepared space for tens of thousands of Armenians from Karabakh, including at hotels near the border, though Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says he does not want them to leave their homes unless it is absolutely necessary.
Azerbaijan launched its "anti-terrorist" operation on Tuesday against Nagorno-Karabakh after some of its troops were killed in what Baku said were separatist attacks.
The Karabakh region was more militarized than Baku realized, Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan's president, said on social media on Saturday, publishing a list of weapons and ammunition that had been seized in the past three days, including four tanks, 300 explosives and 441 mortar shells.
Accounts of the fighting were chilling.
Armenui Karapetyan, an Armenian in Karabakh, said he was now homeless, holding just a few possessions and a photograph of his 24-year-old son who died in 2020, after leaving his home in the village of Kusapat.
"Today we were thrown out into the street - they made us vagabonds," Karapetyan told Armenia A1+, a partner of Reuters.
"What can I say? We live in an unfair, abandoned world. I have nothing to say. I feel sorry for the blood of our boys. I feel sorry for our lands for which our boys sacrificed their lives, and today... I miss the grave of my son."
Thousands of Karabakh Armenians have massed at the airport seeking the protection of Russian peacekeepers there.
Svetlana Alaverdyan, from the village of Arajadzor, said she had fled with just the clothes on her back after gun fights gripped the village.
"They were shooting on the right, they were shooting on the left - we went out one after another, without taking clothes," she told Armenia A1+.
"I had two sons - I gave them away, what else can I give? The superpowers resolve their issues at our expense."