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Former Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian leader arrested as over 50,000 refugees flee region

Ruben Vardanyan, a former high-ranking official in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, was arrested by Azerbaijan authorities on Sept. 27, 2023, as he attempted to flee the region along with over 50,000 other ethnic Armenian refugees. / Credit: Aleksey Chalabyan a.k.a Xelgen|Wikipedia|CC BY-SA 4.0

CNA Staff, Sep 27, 2023 / 14:43 pm (CNA).

Ruben Vardanyan, a former high-ranking official in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, was arrested by Azerbaijan authorities on Sept. 27 as he attempted to flee the region along with over 50,000 other ethnic Armenian refugees.

The Azeri Press Agency (APA), an Azeri state media outlet, published a photo showing Vardanyan, 55, in handcuffs and reported that authorities had taken him to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.

“He was brought to the city of Baku accompanied by the employees of the State Border Service’s Agile Movement Forces,” APA reported, adding that “the detained person was handed over to the relevant state authorities to make an appropriate decision.” 

Vardanyan is a former state minister of the Republic of Artsakh, Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian separatist government that was defeated by a short but intense Azeri military offensive on Sept. 19.

Born in 1968 in the city of Yerevan in what was Soviet Armenia, Vardanyan attended university in Moscow and became a successful businessman before returning to Armenia.

The reason behind the arrest has not been made clear by Azeri authorities. However, the BBC reported that Azeri authorities, while agreeing to grant amnesty to Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh, are looking to arrest those who they say have committed war crimes.

Veronika Zonabend, Vardanyan’s wife, issued a statement from her husband’s X account Wednesday in which she confirmed his arrest and asked for support.

“This morning, my husband, Ruben Vardanyan, philanthropist, businessman, and former minister of state of the Republic of Artsakh, was arrested and captured by Azerbaijani authorities at the border while attempting to leave Artsakh along with thousands of other Armenians fleeing Azerbaijani occupation,” Zonabend said.

Calling attention to the 10-month Azeri blockade of the Lachin Corridor that cut off all food and supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh, Zonabend said that “Ruben stood shoulder to shoulder with the people of Artsakh, endured hardships and fought for survival with them.”

“I pray that my husband will be released unharmed and ask for your support,” Zonabend added.  

The Azeri Times, a pro-Azeri government news source, reported on Wednesday that another Artsakh official has been arrested by Azeri authorities. The identity of this individual, however, has not yet been revealed, according to The Azeri Times. The news source said that there is speculation the arrested individual could be either Arayik Harutyunyan, former Artsakh president, or Vitaly Balasanyan, former head of the Artsakh National Security Council.

This comes amid a mass exodus of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh over widespread fears of ethnic cleansing and genocide by the Azeri government. 

On Wednesday the Armenian government announced that 50,243 “forcibly displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh” have crossed into Armenia. This is more than 40% of the total ethnic Armenian population of 120,000 in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The U.S. has expressed its support for Armenians displaced by the conflict. 

Adrienne Watson, a White House National Security Council spokesperson, announced additional humanitarian aid would be sent to the region on Tuesday. 

Samantha Power, chief administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim landed in Armenia Monday to meet with Armenian and Azeri officials regarding the crisis. 

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev met with Power and Kim on Wednesday to urge the humane treatment of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a report by APA. 

Aliyev has said that the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will be integrated and that their rights will be respected.

The Azeri State Security Service echoed Aliyev’s promises, saying in a Monday statement that “full protection of the rights and freedoms of persons of Armenian nationality who have handed over weapons and comply with the requirements of the relevant legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan is provided.”

Both former Soviet territories, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Both sides have accused each other of committing war crimes and genocide against civilians in the region.

With the backing of Turkey, Azerbaijan asserted its military dominance over Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended in November 2020.

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