GORIS, Armenia—A former head of the breakaway ethnic Armenian government in Nagorno-Karabakh was arrested by Azerbaijan on Wednesday as he tried to escape into Armenia as part of an exodus of tens of thousands of people that has triggered a humanitarian crisis.
Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire banker and philanthropist, headed Karabakh's separatist government between November 2022 and February 2023.
His wife Veronika Zonabend said on his Telegram channel that he had been arrested while trying to flee as part of a mass departure by ethnic Armenians after Azerbaijan took back control of the territory last week.
Azerbaijan's border service said he had been taken to the capital Baku and handed over to other state agencies.
Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians who broke away in the 1990s in the first of two wars there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fearing Azerbaijani reprisals because of the bloody history between the two sides, ethnic Armenians are abandoning their homes and fleeing en masse in cars and trucks along the snaking mountain road that leads to Armenia. Karabakh authorities said 47,115 people had left so far, out of an estimated ethnic Armenian population of 120,000 people.
Western governments fear a humanitarian disaster and are pressing for Azerbaijan to allow international observers into Karabakh to monitor its treatment of the local population.
"What is needed now is transparency, and the eyes and ears of the international community on the spot," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock posted on X, formerly Twitter.
"It would be a sign of confidence that Azerbaijan is serious about its commitments to the security and wellbeing of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh if it allows international observers."
AccusationsAzerbaijan says it wants to peacefully reintegrate the ethnic Armenian residents of Karabakh and emphatically rejects Armenian accusations of ethnic cleansing.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said last week that Armenians could "finally breathe a sigh of relief" and would be able to vote, receive state education, and freely practise their Christian religion in mainly Muslim Azerbaijan. Baku would turn Karabakh into a "paradise," he said.
It was not clear on what grounds Mr. Vardanyan had been held, but Azerbaijan has signalled it will seek to prosecute some figures in the Karabakh leadership.
"We have accused elements of the criminal regime and we will bring them to justice," Mr. Aliyev said last week, without naming anyone or specifying any crime.
Ms. Zonabend said she asked for people's "prayers and support for my husband's safe release."
The mountain road that winds out of Karabakh towards Armenia has been choked for days, with many people sleeping in cars or searching for firewood to keep warm. The journey of just 77 km (48 miles) to the border was taking at least 30 hours.
"I left everything behind. I don't know what is in store for me. I have nothing. I don't want anything," Vera Petrosyan, a 70-year-old retired teacher, told Reuters.
Death TollLocal authorities said at least 68 people had been killed, 105 were missing and nearly 300 were injured in a huge explosion at a fuel station in Karabakh on Monday. It was unclear what caused it.
Russia said its peacekeeping force in the region had evacuated more than 120 people by helicopter.
Tens of thousands have been killed in wars over Karabakh since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, of which both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part.
The toll climbed further in last week's fighting, in which Karabakh authorities said they lost at least 200 people.
Azerbaijan said on Wednesday that 192 of its soldiers had been killed, and published their names and photographs on the defence ministry website. More than 50 were young men in their teens.