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Thousands flee Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan following military take over

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Several thousand ethnic Armenians have already fled an enclave in Azerbaijan. Azeri troops took over Nagorno-Karabakh last week after many months of blocking aid to the region. The U.S., which tried but failed to broker a peace deal, is now calling on Azerbaijan to protect those Armenians who want to stay. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The images and videos are grim - cars lining up to leave Nagorno-Karabakh with refugees pouring into Armenia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: This woman, speaking to the Associated Press, called it a nightmare, saying her village in Nagorno-Karabakh was shelled. She says almost no one is left there.

THOMAS DE WAAL: This is a massive depopulation of Karabakh by its Armenian population.

KELEMEN: That's Thomas de Waal of the think tank Carnegie Europe. He's a longtime expert on the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus.

DE WAAL: This is the end game of a 30-plus-year-old conflict in which both sides have committed atrocity. There's been ethnic cleansing. Huge amounts of hatred have been cultivated, especially on the Azerbaijani side.

KELEMEN: For the past 10 months, Azerbaijan blocked the only humanitarian route into Nagorno-Karabakh, home to about 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Just last week it managed a military takeover. Now Azerbaijan says it will reintegrate the enclave in a way that protects civilians. But de Waal says the Armenian residents of the region were not afforded any special rights, and their local government is being dismantled.

DE WAAL: Let's add to that the fact that almost none of them actually speak the Azerbaijani language. So all of that means that really, for the vast majority of people, they see no future in Azerbaijan.

KELEMEN: He says U.S. and European diplomats were blindsided by Azerbaijan's actions. They had worked for years to try for a different outcome that would ensure the rights of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, though they always saw the region as part of Azerbaijan. Today at the State Department, spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. wants to see outside observers allowed in now to make sure Azerbaijan follows through on its obligations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW MILLER: Azerbaijan has a responsibility to protect civilians and ensure the humane treatment of all, including those it suspects of being combatants.

KELEMEN: Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev seemed to be on a bit of a victory tour, hosting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an Azeri enclave that borders Turkey. Aliyev wants to develop a land bridge that would cross through Armenia to connect the enclave to Azerbaijan. Miller says that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been talking to his Turkish counterpart about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: We continue to hope that all of our allies and partners could play a constructive role in reaching a lasting agreement. And that, of course, would include Turkey.

KELEMEN: Some U.S. lawmakers are pushing the State Department to do much more to protect ethnic Armenian cultural sites in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Carnegie Endowment's Thomas de Waal says a lot is at stake in this conflict.

DE WAAL: It's tragic for the tens of thousands of people who are losing their homes. It's going to have huge reverberations across the Armenian world because Karabakh has enormous significance for Armenians as a place of Armenian heritage and history and churches, which is now basically being completely taken over by Azerbaijan, has a very uncertain future in Azerbaijan.

KELEMEN: And he says those who are fleeing are also angry with the Prime Minister of Armenia for not doing enough to help them. De Waal suspects this could lead to some political turmoil in Armenia. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.