Armenia’s national airline, Armavia, said on Friday that it intends to continue weekly flights to Aleppo despite heavy fighting in and around Syria’s most populous city which is home to a sizable Armenian community.
In a written statement, Armavia expressed readiness to ignore “security risks and international recommendations to refrain from flying to that destination” in order to help Syria’s ethnic Armenians flee the country. It said it is even ready to carry out additional flights to Aleppo in case of “corresponding assistance” from Armenia’s government.
The private carrier resumed the regular flight service on July 9 after a more than four-month hiatus which it blamed on the worsening unrest in the Middle Eastern nation. Its next Yerevan-Aleppo flight is scheduled for Monday.
A Syrian airline also flies from Aleppo to Yerevan once a week. Its most recent flight was carried out on Wednesday as rebels attacked and seized some parts of Syria’s commercial capital. Fighting there appears to have intensified since then.
Thirty-four people were killed in and around Aleppo on Thursday, according to Syrian opposition activists. One of them, Majed al-Nour, told Reuters that tens of thousands of people have fled Aleppo to nearby northern rural regions close to Turkey
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces reportedly launched ground and air bombardments in preparation for a major onslaught against the anti-government insurgents. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed serious concern at “credible reports of columns of tanks” waiting to attack the city. She said Washington is worried that “we will see a massacre in Aleppo.”
According to ethnic Armenians interviewed by RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) by phone, there has been no major fighting in the city’s Armenian quarters so far. “There is small arms gunfire,” said Margarit Avetian, a Syrian Armenian woman who returned from Yerevan to Aleppo on Wednesday. “We are already used to that. But we are a little careful.” Avetian added that she and her neighbors are now trying not leave their homes.
“The Armenian quarters were peaceful [on Thursday] and people went about their business,” said Father Andranik, an Armenian priest. “But that was not the case in more remote areas. Shops there were closed. There was definitely an atmosphere of fear.”
A significant number of Syrian Armenians are believed to have taken refuge in Armenia in recent months. The Armenian Foreign Ministry revealed to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Friday that its still functioning diplomatic missions in Damascus and Aleppo have issued Armenian visas to some 3,000 Syrian nationals so far this year.
A similar number of Syrians, virtually all of them of Armenian origin, applied for Armenian citizenship in the first half of 2012. Another 3,000 Syrian Armenians did so in the course of last year.
The Yerevan government announced on Thursday that Syrian Armenians will now be able to receive their Armenian passports at the Damascus and Aleppo consulates after being granted the dual citizenship. It also allowed them to get Armenian visas at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport and other border checkpoints.
The Armenian community in Syria has an estimated 60,000-80,000 members. Most of them live in Aleppo.