Exclusive-Senior US officials traveling to Armenia as Karabakh's Armenians start to leave

A refugee boy from Nagorno-Karabakh region looks out of a car window upon arrival at a temporary accommodation centre in the town of Goris, Armenia, September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Biden administration officials were to arrive in Armenia on Monday, a U.S. official told Reuters, after ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began a mass exodus on Sunday following Azerbaijan's defeat of the breakaway region's fighters in a conflict dating from the Soviet era.

The visit by U.S. Agency for International Development chief Samantha Power and U.S. State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim would be the first by senior U.S. officials to Armenia since a ceasefire last week.

Power will meet with senior government officials and will "affirm U.S. support for Armenia’s democracy, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and commitment to address humanitarian needs stemming from Nagorno-Karabakh," the official said.

Power will be the first USAID Administrator to go to Armenia, the official said, and will affirm the U.S. partnership with the country and "express deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh and to discuss measures to address the humanitarian crisis there."

"The United States is deeply concerned about reports on the humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh and calls for unimpeded access for international humanitarian organizations and commercial traffic," the official said.

The Armenians of Karabakh, a territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but previously beyond its control, were forced into a ceasefire last week after a 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.

The Armenians are not accepting Azerbaijan's promise to guarantee their rights as the region is integrated. The Nagorno-Karabakh leadership told Reuters the region's 120,000 Armenians did not want to live as part of Azerbaijan for fear of persecution and ethnic cleansing.

The Armenian government said late on Sunday that a total of 1,050 people had crossed into the country from Nagorno-Karabakh. It was unclear when the bulk of the population might move to Armenia.

Armenia has prepared space for tens of thousands of Armenians from the region, including hotels near the border, though Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says he does not want them to leave their homes unless it is absolutely necessary.

Thousands of Karabakh Armenians have been left without food.

The Armenian authorities in the region said late on Saturday that about 150 tonnes of humanitarian cargo from Russia and another 65 tonnes of flour shipped by the International Committee of the Red Cross had arrived in the region.

Karabakh has been run by a breakaway administration since a war in the early 1990s amid the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In 2020, after decades of skirmishes, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, won a 44-day Second Karabakh War, recapturing territory in and around Karabakh. That war ended with a Russian-brokered peace deal that Armenians accuse Moscow of failing to guarantee.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Donna Bryson and Michael Perry)

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