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Karabakh separatists to disband after surrender to Azerbaijan

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Yerevan,  Armenia—The toll from an explosion at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh that was thronged with Armenians fleeing an Azerbaijani military offensive has jumped to 170 people, authorities in the region announced Friday.

The blast occurred days after the breakaway region’s separatist fighters announced they would disarm and integrate with Azerbaijan, spurring an exodus of thousands of ethnic Armenians.

“To date, a total of 170 remains … have been found in the same area and handed over to the forensic medical examination bureau,” separatist authorities said in a statement on social media.

The report coincided with news that ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday agreed to dissolve their government by the end of the year and become a full part of Azerbaijan in the wake of Baku’s lightning offensive.

The dramatic announcement came moments after it became clear that more than half of the rebel region’s population had fled the advancing Azerbaijani forces.

It drew the curtain on one of the world’s longest and seemingly most irreconcilable “frozen conflicts”—one that successive administrations in Washington and leaders across Europe had failed to resolve in ceaseless rounds of talks.

But it also stoked anger in Yerevan.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan of conducting “ethnic cleansing” and called on the international community to act.

Baku’s 24-hour blitz ended with a September 20 truce in which the rebels pledged to disarm and enter “reintegration” talks.

Two rounds of talks were held as Azerbaijani forces worked with Russian peacekeepers to collect separatist weapons and enter towns that had remained outside Baku’s control since the Caucasus neighbours first fought over the region in the 1990s.

Azerbaijani troops have now approached the edge of Stepanakert — an emptying rebel stronghold where separatist leader Samvel Shakhramanyan issued his decree.

“Dissolve all state institutions and organizations under their departmental subordination by January 1, 2024, and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases to exist,” the decree said.

The republic and its separatist dream have been effectively vanishing since Azerbaijan unlocked the only road leading to Armenia on Sunday.

Armenia said more than 78,000 of the region’s 120,000-strong population had piled their belongings on top of their cars and left by late Thursday.

Pashinyan said he expected the entire region to clear out “in the coming days”.

“This is an act of ethnic cleansing of which we were warning the international community about for a long time,” he told a cabinet meeting.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry retorted: “Pashinyan knows perfectly well that Armenian residents are leaving Karabakh on their own volition.”

Moscow also issued a guarded statement that appeared to absolve Baku of any blame.

“It’s difficult to say who is to blame (for the exodus). There is no direct reason for such actions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

No country — not even Armenia — supported the statelet’s independence claim.

But ethnic Armenian separatists have been running the region since winning a brutal war in the 1990s that claimed tens of thousands of lives.  AFP

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