Armenia’s national airline has continued its weekly flights to Aleppo, enabling more Syrians of Armenian descent to flee the epicenter of fierce fighting between Syria’s government troops and rebels.
The Armavia carrier pledged on Tuesday to carry out five additional flights to the war-torn city in August. In statement, the private company cited the need to “evacuate our Syrian Armenian compatriots from the war zone.”
An Armavia passenger jet flew to Aleppo on Monday and returned to Yerevan with about 150 Syrian Armenian passengers on board late in the evening as the Syrian military reportedly stepped up its campaign to regain full control of the city.
Government forces backed by helicopter gunships and warplanes have been battling to dislodge rebels controlling parts of Aleppo since last week. News reports cited Syrian opposition groups as saying that 40 people, 30 of them civilians, were killed across the country on Monday.
Syrian Armenians arriving at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport said there has been no major fighting yet in the city’s districts that are home to most members of Syria’s 80,000-strong Armenian community. But they said they were too scared to leave their homes because of heavy gunfire and explosions at nearby residential areas.
“If things continue like this, if the war drags on, the plight of the Armenians will be hard,” one man told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The situation is not good. Actually, it’s bad,” said another.
Armavia said on Friday that it will carry on with the Yerevan-Aleppo flights despite intensifying fighting in and around Syria’s largest city. The private company also expressed readiness to make the service more frequent and cheaper if it receives financial assistance from the Armenia government.
Armavia announced the five additional flights despite receiving no official response from the government yet. The company is therefore unlikely to lower its fares without government subsidies.
Armavia has been strongly criticized by opposition and other non-governmental groups in Armenia for flying to Syria only once a week and raising its ticket prices recently. It has attributed the price rise to higher international insurance costs.
Syria’s national airline has also not cancelled its separate weekly flights to Armenia. A Syrian Air plane is scheduled to land at Zvartnots on Wednesday. Both Armavia and Syrian Air say their flights are fully booked until September.
Hrach Asadurian, a car dealer from Aleppo, had to travel to Armenia by car, via Turkey and Georgia, with his wife and three children last month after failing to buy air tickers. They have since lived at his sister’s Yerevan apartment.
Asadurian and several other Syrian Armenian men criticized the Armenian government for not providing them with housing and jobs as they waited for their arriving relatives at Zvartnots. An official from Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora confronted by them urged the men to visit the ministry offices for further information on government assistance promised to Syrian Armenians.
Armenia’s still functioning diplomatic missions in Damascus and Aleppo have issued some 3,000 visas to mainly ethnic Armenian Syrian nationals this year. A small number of those people appear to be returning to Syria now despite the continuing bloodshed there.
Sixteen Syrian Armenians boarded on Monday the Armavia plane bound for Aleppo. Among them were Raffi Merjanian, his wife, young son and father-in-law. The family came to Armenia a month ago.
“I spoke to my parents [in Aleppo] and they said things are quiet now,” Merjanian explained to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We’ll see. If there is trouble there, we’ll come back to Armenia.”
Seda Leplejian, a middle-aged woman, was flying back to Aleppo with her husband. The couple travelled to Armenia recently to receive Armenian citizenship and their new passports. She too said that they will return to “our homeland” if violence in Syria escalates further.