Azerbaijan arrests the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh's separatist government after an offensive

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh ride a truck on their way to Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, Sept. 26, 2023. Thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh residents are fleeing their homes after Azerbaijan's swift military operation to reclaim control of the breakaway region after a three-decade separatist conflict. (Stepan Poghosyan, Photolure photo via AP)

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Azerbaijan said Wednesday it has detained the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government as he tried to cross into Armenia following Azerbaijan’s 24-hour blitz last week to reclaim control of the enclave.

The arrest of Ruben Vardanyan was announced by Azerbaijan’s border guard service. It appears to reflect Azerbaijan’s intention to quickly and forcefully enforce its grip on the region after the military offensive that also saw an exodus of tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians — more than a third of its population.

Vardanyan, a billionaire businessman who made his fortune in Russia where he owned a major investment bank, moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022 and served as the head the regional government for several months before stepping down earlier this year.

Azerbaijan’s Health Ministry said earlier Wednesday that a total of 192 Azerbaijani troops were killed and 511 were wounded during the offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. One Azeri civilian also died in the hostilities.

Nagorno-Karabakh officials said earlier that at least 200 people on their side, including 10 civilians, were killed and over 400 were wounded in the fighting.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities agreed to lay down arms and start talks on the region’s “reintegration” in Azerbaijan. The two rounds of those negotiations have been held, but no details have been made available yet.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region of Azerbaijan that came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.

In December, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade of the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, alleging that the Armenian government was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the region’s separatist forces.

Armenia charged that the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s approximately 120,000 people. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing the region could receive supplies through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Azerbaijan to gain control of the region.

Some 42,500 people, or about 35% of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population, had left for neighboring Armenia as of Wednesday morning, according to Armenian authorities. Hours-long traffic jams were reported on Tuesday on the road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

An explosion at a gas station near the region’s capital Stepanakert, where people were queuing to fuel up their cars before leaving for Armenia, on Monday night killed at least 68 people, according to Nagorno-Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan. Another 290 were wounded, and a total of 105 were considered missing as of Tuesday evening, he said.

The Armenian Health Ministry on Wednesday said 237 people wounded in both the hostilities last week and the gas station explosion on Monday had been evacuated by ambulance and helicopter from Nagorno-Karabakh.

They’re receiving necessary treatment, and the process of evacuating the injured continues, the ministry said.