About 50 more ethnic Armenians arrived in Yerevan late on Thursday on the first of additional flights to and from Syria’s battleground city of Aleppo that was carried out by the Armavia national airline.
Armavia scheduled the five additional flights for August, in addition to its existing once-a-week service, earlier this week amid intensifying fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels controlling some parts of Aleppo. It cited the need to help more Syrian Armenians take refuge in Armenia.
An Armavia spokeswoman said on Friday that the latest flight raised to around 500 the number of people flown from Aleppo to Yerevan by the private carrier over the past month. Syria’s national airline, which also flies between the two cities once a week, has apparently transported a similar number of Syrian Armenians.
According to Armenia’s Foreign Ministry, some 3,000 Syrian Armenians have received Armenian visas so far this year.
Abraham Vazirian, an Aleppo businessman, his wife and three children were among the 47 passengers on board Armavia’s SAG-200 plane that landed at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport on Thursday evening. “We closed up the shop and came here,” Vazirian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “All businesses there have stopped working.”
“Many Aleppo Armenians have come to Armenia,” he said. “There are few Armenians left there. There are explosions, there is war.”
Vazirian’s wife, Ani Mukuchian, said the family passed through rebel checkpoints on its way from Aleppo to the local international airport. “Our driver told [rebel fighters] that we are Armenians and they let us through,” she said.
“They could do anything: beat or slaughter; they are criminals,” claimed her husband. “We reached the airport with fear. The road was very scary.”
As always, some of the arriving Syrian nationals painted very different pictures of the situation in the city of 2.5 million, which is home to most of an estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians living in Syria. “Those telling different stories lie,” one elderly man told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The situation is very good.”
News reports from Aleppo said government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad used heavy weapons on Thursday to try do dislodge rebels from city outskirts. No major fighting has been reported so far from the city’s central districts populated by Armenians.
According to Mukuchian, many Aleppo Armenians would have liked to go to Armenia by bus, via Turkey and Georgia, because of the shortage and the high cost of Aleppo-Yerevan air tickets. But she said they are too scared of venturing out of Syria’s commercial capital.
Armavia says the prices of its one-way Aleppo-Yerevan tickets range from 117,000 to 192,000 drams ($285-470). However, some of the newly arrived Syrian Armenians claimed to have paid 206,000 drams and even more to travel agencies.