By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri, Ruben Meloyan and Emil Danielyan
Armenia evacuated thousands of its citizens and received a significant number of foreigners from neighboring Georgia over the weekend and on Monday as the Russian-Georgian military conflict increasingly escalated into an all-out war.
The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan said at least 7,500 Armenians spending their summer holidays on the Georgian Black Sea coast and some 2,000 foreign nationals, including relatives of Tbilisi-based U.S. diplomats, have entered the country since the outbreak of large-scale fighting in South Ossetia on Friday.
Georgia’s attempt to win back the breakaway region triggered a harsh Russian retaliation involving air strikes on military and civilian targets across the South Caucasus state. Armenia expressed serious concern about the worst regional crisis since the early 1990s and urged Armenian vacationers to return home on Saturday. The vast majority of them appear to have heeded the call.
Scores of cars and minibuses, which the Armenian government helped to send to popular Black Sea resorts in Georgia’s Ajaria region, have since been streaming into Armenia, bypassing Tbilisi and the main Georgian road leading to the Armenian border. The highway passes near airfields and other military facilities bombed by Russian warplanes.
The convoys of Armenian evacuees, led by Georgian police patrols, have moved along a longer road than runs through Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region to the Bavra border crossing in northwestern Armenia. A kilometer-long line of vehicles could be observed there in the early hours of Monday. Each vehicle needed hours to go through rigorous passport and customs checks on either side of the frontier.
Security at the Georgian and Armenian checkpoints was visibly tightened. Armenian border officials there told RFE/RL that more than 1,500 vehicles carrying more than 7,600 people have crossed into Armenia through Bavra since Saturday.
“The situation was very tense there in the last few days,” said one man returning from the Ajarian town of Kobuleti with his family. “There is hardly any vacationer left there. Everyone is coming back. Kobuleti is now empty.”
“We decided to come back because it was impossible to rest in that panicky situation,” explained another, female vacationer.
Another woman said she and her family headed to Ajaria shortly after the Georgian assault on South Ossetia. “We saw the war with our own eyes,” she told RFE/RL. “On our way to Georgia we saw a bomb explode just a 100 meters away from us.”
The Georgian Black coast has become a popular holiday destination of Armenians in recent years. An estimated 50,000 of them spent their summer holidays there last year.
Armenia’s consulate-general in Ajaria’s capital Batumi was tasked with organizing the evacuation process. According to Hakob Haji-Hakobian, the consul general, more than 300 Armenian nationals left the area on Monday morning.
“The situation is calm at the moment, but you can’t take any chances,” Haji-Hakobian told RFE/RL by phone. “It is certainly right to leave the area because the situation is unpredictable.”
Armenia also appears to be the main transit point for thousands of Western nationals caught up in the Georgian-Russian fighting. According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, about 2,000 of them have entered the country from Georgia as of Monday afternoon, heeding travel advisories issued by the U.S. and European governments. Armenian immigration bodies were instructed to issue them with visas swiftly and free of charge.
Some 130 Italians evacuated from Tbilisi returned home on Monday night on board a plane sent by the Italian government to Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri. Another plane was sent to Yerevan by the government of Poland. It was due to collect 180 mostly Polish citizens waiting there. According to a Spanish diplomatic source cited by AFP news agency, a group of Spanish
tourists have already been also evacuated through Armenia.
The evacuees also included members of the families of the U.S. embassy staff in Tbilisi. “They were relocated to Yerevan and will stay here for the time being, until circumstances improve,” a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Armenia, Thomas Mittnacht, told RFE/RL. He said the Armenian authorities have been “extremely helpful” in the evacuation of these and other American citizens.
(EPA photo: A column of Russian troops on the march to South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali on August 9.)