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Thousands Of Armenian Civilians Flee Fighting Close To Border With Azerbaijan

Armenian Health Minister Anahit Avanesian (right) visits civilians wounded by Azerbaijani shelling on September 14.

JERMUK, Armenia -- Thousands of residents of Armenian towns and villages close to the Azerbaijani border have fled their homes since the outbreak of large-scale fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces on September 12.

A senior Armenian official said that a cease-fire had been agreed with Azerbaijan, but there has been no word from Azerbaijan regarding a possible truce.

Jermuk, a resort town which is home to some 4,000 people, is close to one of the epicenters of the fierce fighting. Its deputy mayor, Vartan Sargsian, said that the vast majority of women and children living there were evacuated in recent days. Many of the remaining civilians are having to take cover in basements, he added.

"The [Azerbaijani] artillery is firing toward the town," Sargsian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. "The road leading out of the town is dangerous."

In neighboring Syunik, more than 130 families were reportedly evacuated from the local village of Aghitu after a road leading to it was shelled by Azerbaijani forces.

"The shelling is continuing," said the village chief, Avetis Avetisian. "The women and children have been evacuated. Only young people remain."

Both the Armenian Health Ministry and Azerbaijan's military have said that civilians have been killed or injured in the shelling.

According to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, 105 Armenian troops had been killed in the recent fighting. On September 13, Azerbaijan said it had lost 50 troops.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.

The two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks and killed an estimated 6,000 people before a Russia-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.

In the latest clashes, Armenia and Azerbaijan have both accused each other of initiating the cross-border shelling, which began on September 12 in what has been the deadliest fighting since the end of the 2020 war.

The fighting also displaced residents of several border villages in Gegharkunik, Armenia. Many local residents fled to the regional town of Vardenis. Some spent nights inside their cars due to a lack of accommodation.

"Shells landed in the fields and shattered windows," said one woman. "We left our cattle and fled. My husband didn't even have time to pick our documents."

Vardenis, however, was no safe haven as heavy gunfire could be heard in the town. Smoke rising above the hills in the nearby border area was also visible.

Armenian Villagers Take Stock Amid Ruined Houses After The Latest Fighting With Azerbaijan
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On September 14, the provincial administration in the area ordered the temporary closure of all schools in Gegharkunik.

The previous day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed serious concern over "reported strikes against settlements and civilian infrastructure inside Armenia." He brought up "shelling in Armenia" during a phone call with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

The UN and world leaders have urged the two sides to de-escalate tensions.