KORNIDZOR, Armenia — The top U.S. humanitarian aid official Samantha Power said Tuesday she was aware of “very troubling reports of violence against civilians” in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and complained Azerbaijan had blocked access to the breakaway region for international observers wanting to gauge the severity of the crisis.
Nagorno-Karabakh leapt back to international attention last week when Azerbaijani forces won a 24-hour lightning war to force the surrender of the ethnic Armenian authorities in the enclave. Since then, nearly 20,000 people have fled — out of a population of some 100,000 — and fears are growing of ethnic cleansing.
Asked by POLITICO whether she agreed with warnings from Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan that the exodus reflected “ethnic cleansing,” Power — a former genocide scholar — declined to use the term.
However, she added, “testimony” was already being gathered “from people who have fled violence, deprivation, and with the fear of living under the government of Azerbaijan.”
“We have heard very troubling reports of violence against civilians,” she went on.
Halfway through her answer, however, Power was interrupted by an Armenian shouting that she should “say it’s a genocide or go home. You don’t care, stop the lies!”
Power was speaking at a press conference on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, and said she had been sent by U.S. President Joe Biden on a fact-finding mission.
She also announced funds to help deal with the growing emergency.
“The U.S. will provide $11.5 million in humanitarian assistance,” she said, adding that the assistance “will be used to provide everything from food to psychosocial support.”
According to Power, Azerbaijan’s closure of the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia “created excruciating humanitarian conditions,” and “the attacks of last week have made a dire situation even worse.”
Now, according to the Armenian government, more than 19,000 people have fled the enclave since Azerbaijan opened the road on Sunday. Humanitarian organizations are racing against the clock to ensure those displaced have food, fuel and shelter. As the USAID administrator spoke, open-topped construction trucks filled with children and their parents rumbled past.
Azerbaijan denies its forces have intentionally harmed civilians. In an interview with POLITICO on Monday, the country’s foreign policy chief Hikmet Hajiyev insisted the ethnic Armenians’ political, cultural and linguistic rights would be protected — but added the government would not stand in the way of ethnic Karabakh Armenians if they chose to leave.
Yuri Kim, the U.S. State Department’s acting assistant secretary for European affairs, also joined the delegation led by Power. Days before Azerbaijan launched its offensive, she told Congress that “the United States will not countenance any action or effort — short-term or long-term — to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
However, Kim declined to comment on a question from POLITICO on whether the visit came too late to avert such a tragedy.
The large-scale displacement of the Karabakh population has complicated efforts to rescue hundreds of people injured in a fuel depot blast in Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday night, which killed at least 20 people and wounded hundreds. With the roads congested by fleeing civilians, Azerbaijan agreed to allow Armenian doctors to conduct an unprecedented evacuation by air, and pledged to send aid of its own.
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