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Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region arrive by truck in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, on Sept. 26.IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/Reuters

Hungry and exhausted Armenian families jammed roads to flee homes in the defeated breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, while the United States called on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and let in aid.

The Armenians of Karabakh – part of Azerbaijan that had been beyond Baku’s control since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – began fleeing this week after their forces were routed in a lightning operation by Azerbaijan’s military.

At least 19,000 of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians who call Nagorno-Karabakh home have already crossed into Armenia, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Khachatryan was quoted by Russia’s TASS news agency as saying, with hundreds of cars and buses crammed with belongings snaking down the mountain road out of Azerbaijan.

Some fled packed into the back of open-topped trucks, others on tractors. Grandmother-of-four Narine Shakaryan arrived in her son-in-law’s old car with six people packed inside. The 77 kilometres drive had taken 24 hours, she said. They had had no food.

“The whole way the children were crying, they were hungry,” Ms. Shakaryan told Reuters at the border, carrying her three-year old granddaughter, who she said had become ill during the journey. “We left so we would stay alive, not to live.”

As Armenians rushed to leave the Karabakh capital, known as Stepanakert by Armenia and Khankendi by Azerbaijan, fuel stations were overwhelmed by panic buying. The death toll from an explosion and fire at a fuel depot in Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday has risen to 68, with a further 105 people missing and nearly 300 injured, the office of Karabakh’s ombudsman said on Tuesday.

The blast occurred as thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the breakaway enclave after their fighters were defeated by Azerbaijan in a lightning military operation.

The authorities have not given any explanation of the cause of the blast.

Earlier, several media outlets cited the Armenian health minister as saying the death toll from Monday’s incident had risen to 125.

Some outlets later edited their posts, saying that was the number of people killed in Karabakh during last week’s Azerbaijani military operation and then transported to Armenia.

The office of Karabakh’s ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan, gave its toll and the number of missing later on Tuesday.

It said on social media the number of injured had reached 290, of whom 168 were taken to medical institutions in Armenia on Tuesday: 96 by helicopters from Armenia and belonging to Russian peacekeepers, and 72 patients by ambulances accompanied by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The number of victims rose sharply from an earlier announcement by Karabakh authorities reporting 20 dead on Tuesday morning.

As of 9:30 a.m. EST on Tuesday, at least 28,120 of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians who call Nagorno-Karabakh home had already crossed into Armenia, the Armenian government said.

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power, in the Armenian capital Yerevan, called on Azerbaijan “to maintain the ceasefire and take concrete steps to protect the rights of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Ms. Power, who earlier handed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan a letter of support from U.S. President Joe Biden, said Azerbaijan’s use of force was unacceptable and that Washington was looking at an appropriate response.

She called on Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to live up to his promise to protect ethnic Armenian rights, fully reopen the Lachin corridor that connects the region to Armenia and let in aid deliveries and an international monitoring mission.

Mr. Aliyev has pledged to guarantee the safety of Karabakh’s Armenians but said his iron fist had consigned the idea of the region’s independence to history.

“It is absolutely critical that independent monitors as well as humanitarian organizations get access to the people in Nagorno-Karabakh who still have dire needs,” Ms. Power later said during a visit to the village of Kornidzor on the Azeri border.

She also announced US$11.5-million in emergency U.S. aid for Karabakh.

Asked if she believed Azerbaijani forces had committed atrocities against civilians or combatants in Karabakh, she said: “We have heard very troubling reports of violence against civilians. At the same time given the chaos here and the trauma, the gathering of testimonies … of the people who have come across is something that is just beginning.”

Ethnic Armenians who managed to get to Armenia have given harrowing accounts of fleeing death, war and hunger.

Some said they saw many dead civilians – one said truckloads. Others, some with young children, broke down in tears as they described a tragic odyssey of running from war, sleeping on the ground and with hunger churning in their bellies.

“We took what we could and left. We don’t know where we’re going. We have nowhere to go,” Petya Grigoryan, a 69-year-old driver, told Reuters in the border town of Goris on Sunday.

Reuters was unable to independently verify accounts of the military operation inside Karabakh. Azerbaijan has said it targeted only Karabakh fighters.

The Azerbaijani victory changes the balance of power in the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnicities criss-crossed with oil and gas pipelines where Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran are jostling for influence.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia had relied on a security partnership with Russia, while Azerbaijan grew close to Turkey, with which it shares linguistic and cultural ties.

Armenia has lately sought closer ties with the West and blames Russia, which had peacekeepers in Karabakh but is now preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, for failing to protect Karabakh. Moscow denies blame and has told Mr. Pashinyan that he is making a big mistake by flirting with the United States.

The Kremlin said Russia’s President Vladimir Putin discussed the Karabakh situation on Tuesday with President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, which shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Mr. Aliyev hinted on Monday at the prospect of creating a land corridor to Turkey across Armenia. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, who met Mr. Aliyev on Monday, said on Tuesday such a corridor must be completed.

Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, told Washington to stop stoking anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia.

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