‘Severe malnutrition’ is growing concern as thousands flee Nagorno-Karabakh, senior US official warns

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Fears grew of a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh Tuesday as a senior US official warned of malnutrition among the tens of thousands fleeing the breakaway region for Armenia.

Senior US officials – including US Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power and US State Department acting assistant secretary Yuri Kim – met Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the capital Yerevan Monday.

Power traveled to Yerevan “to affirm US support for Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and democracy and help address humanitarian needs stemming from the recent violence in Nagorno-Karabakh,” the aid agency said in a statement Monday.

The visit came days after Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive and said it had taken back full control of the breakaway region, sparking an exodus of the area’s ethnic Armenian population.

By Tuesday evening, over 28,000 “forcibly displaced” people from Nagorno-Karabakh had arrived in Armenia, the Armenian government announced in a Facebook post.

Speaking from the Armenian village of Kornidzor, near the border with Azerbaijan, Power said, “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.

“The military attacks of last week have made a dire situation even worse,” Power said Tuesday, adding that many of those who had arrived were suffering from “severe malnutrition,” according to doctors at the scene.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been under blockade since December 2022, when Azerbaijan-backed activists established a military checkpoint on the Lachin corridor – the only road connecting the landlocked enclave to Armenia.

The blockade prevented the import of food, fuel and medicine to Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting fears that residents were being left to starve. A former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor said in August there is “reasonable basis to believe that genocide is being committed against Armenians” in the region.

The closure of the Lachin corridor has also prevented international organizations and foreign media from accessing Nagorno-Karabakh. The road was only opened last weekend to allow residents to flee.

“We know that there are injured civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh who need to be evacuated,” Power said, adding that Azerbaijan has a responsibility to facilitate this.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on Tuesday about the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a State Department spokesperson.

“The secretary spoke again to President Aliyev today and underscored the urgency of no further hostilities, that there be unconditional protections and freedom of movement for civilians, that there be unhindered humanitarian access to Nagorno Karabakh,” said State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller at a press briefing.

Miller also said that the US expects Aliyev to abide by his commitment to “no further military action.”

Power announced Tuesday that the US would provide $11.5 million in humanitarian assistance to the region.

The European Union also announced 5 million euros (around $5.2 million) in aid.

“This aid will be delivered by various EU humanitarian partners operating in Armenia to reach around 25 000 people,” the EU said in a statement Tuesday. “The priority is to provide cash assistance, shelter, food security and livelihoods assistance.”

Deadly explosion

Azerbaijan’s brief but bloody offensive killed more than 200 people and injured many more, before Karabakh officials agreed to a Russia-brokered ceasefire in which they agreed to dissolve their armed forces.

But as thousands were attempting to flee the enclave on Monday evening, a powerful explosion ripped through a gas station near Stepanakert, where people had been attempting to get fuel before driving to Armenia.

The incident left at least 68 people dead and 290 injured, according to the Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman. Over 100 people remain missing, the Ombudsman’s office also said.

Videos on social media showed a crowded hospital in the city as medical staff attempted to treat burn patients. “At this moment, we do not have any medical resources left that can help us. In terms of medication, we do not have [anti-burn] antibiotics. We have a very high number of burn patients,” said a member of the medical staff at a hospital in Stepanakert, in a video shared Monday by local journalist Siranush Sargsyan.

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