Over 200 hurt in Azerbaijan blast

Explosion reported at fuel depot in breakaway region

Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh sit in a truck on their way to Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. Thousands of Armenians have streamed out of Nagorno-Karabakh after the Azerbaijani military reclaimed full control of the breakaway region last week. (Stepan Poghosyan, Photolure photo via AP)

GORIS, Armenia -- More than 200 people were wounded Monday in a fuel depot explosion in Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, the human rights ombudsman for the region said.

The cause of the explosion could not immediately be determined, and it was not clear if there were any fatalities, but Armenian separatist officials said, "There are victims and wounded."

"A strong explosion occurred in the gasoline warehouse near the Stepanakert-Askera highway," authorities said in a statement. "At the moment, rescue and medical operative groups are working on the spot." Stepanakert is the capital of the breakaway region.

The blast comes as thousands of ethnic Armenians have been fleeing the breakaway region since the weekend to cross the border into Armenia, days after a military offensive brought the enclave back under Azerbaijan's control.

The Armenian government said that more than 6,500 Nagorno-Karabakh residents had fled to Armenia as of Monday evening. Moscow said that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh were assisting the evacuation. Some 700 people remained in the peacekeepers' camp there by Monday night.

The Associated Press reported that the blast occurred as people were lining up at the gas station to refuel their cars as they were evacuating.

The ethnic Armenian leadership said it would remain in place until all those who wanted to leave the region were able to go. They urged residents to hold back from crowding the roads out but promised free fuel to all those who were leaving, according to Reuters.

The human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan, elected to that role by the breakaway republic's lawmaking body, said in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that the majority of the victims were in "severe or extremely severe" condition. He added: "The medical capacities of NK are not enough. Sanitary aviation must land very urgently to save people's lives."

A Russian peacekeeping contingent said that some of the wounded had been treated by their medics and that some of the most severely injured had been transferred to their hospital.

Artak Beglaryan, a former senior official of the breakaway government, said in an interview from Stepanakert that the site of the explosion "is not a gas station; it is a fuel reserve -- the largest one we had."

"When it exploded," he said, it had "dozens of tons of fuel." He added, "Many people fell down and burned in it, and nothing remained of them. There are, for sure, deaths."

Beglaryan said that many of the injured were in critical condition from the explosion and that officials needed to transfer them to Armenia to receive treatment. "Otherwise," he added, "we will lose them."

The Armenian Health Ministry said all possible measures were being taken to transport the victims by air and land to Armenia, according to local news reports.

The explosion took place hours after the second round of talks between Azerbaijani officials and separatist representatives was held Monday in the town of Khojaly, just north of the Nagorno-Karabakh capital. The first round was held last week. Azerbaijan's presidential office said in a statement that the talks were held "in a constructive atmosphere" and that discussion focused on humanitarian aid to the region and medical services.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said Monday that two of its soldiers were killed a day earlier when a military truck hit a land mine. It didn't name the area where the explosion occurred.

In an address to the nation Sunday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his government was working with international partners to protect the rights and security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"If these efforts do not produce concrete results, the government will welcome our sisters and brothers from Nagorno-Karabakh in the Republic of Armenia with every care," he said.

Demonstrators demanding Pashinyan's resignation over what they call his failure to protect Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh continued blocking the Armenian capital's main avenues Monday, clashing occasionally with police.

Russian peacekeepers have been in the region since 2020, when a Russian-brokered armistice ended a six-week war between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Information for this article was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko of The New York Times and by Avet Demourian, Aida Sultanova, Andrew Wilks, Jennifer Peltz and Angela Charlton of The Associated Press.