A section of the highway was blocked on Monday morning by a large group of Azerbaijanis described by Baku as environmental activists. They are demanding that Azerbaijani government officials be allowed to inspect two Karabakh gold mines.
The protesting Azerbaijanis were locked in a standoff with Russian peacekeeping troops who control the so-called Lachin corridor under the terms of the Russian-brokered ceasefire that stopped the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war. Hundreds of Karabakh cars remained stranded at other sections of the highway.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry charged that Azerbaijan’s authorities organized the traffic disruption in an effort to “cut off Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia and thus the outside world” and drive out its ethnic Armenian population. It said this constitutes a blatant violation of the truce accord which commits Baku to guaranteeing the “safety of citizens’ and vehicles’ traffic through the Lachin Corridor.”
In a statement, the ministry urged the international community to respond to the blockade which it said could lead to a “large-scale humanitarian catastrophe.”
The statement followed an emergency session of Armenia’s Security Council chaired by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Karabakh’s leadership held a similar meeting in Stepanakert earlier in the morning. It decided to set up an “operational center” that will deal with economic and humanitarian consequences of the road closure.
The Karabakh health ministry warned that local hospitals could soon face a shortage of drugs and other life-saving medical supplies imported from Armenia.
Mher Musayelian, the director of Stepanakert’s Republican Medical Center, said that several of its patients urgently need to be transported to Yerevan for further surgeries or checkups. “These persons’ lives are now at risk,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
The authorities in Stepanakert also appealed to the commanders of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh to help reopen the vital transport corridor.
Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vahe Gevorgian said later in the day that the peacekeepers are now negotiating with Azerbaijani officials. Karabakh representatives are also involved in the talks, he said.
Russia still did not officially comment on the road blockage by early afternoon. The United States and the European Union also seemed in no rush to criticize it.
The U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said only that Washington remains focused on “the need to de-escalate tensions and on the need to set these two countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] on the path to a lasting, comprehensive settlement.”
An EU foreign policy spokesman was quoted by Armenian Public Television as saying late on Monday that the EU is closely monitoring “various developments taking place over the Lachin corridor” but lacks first-hand information about them. He urged both conflicting sides to show “restraint.”
According to Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman, more than a thousand Karabakh Armenian civilians were stuck on the blocked road in freezing temperatures. Some of them huddled in cars parked at an Armenian border crossing leading to Karabakh.
“I’ve been waiting here since 7 p.m. yesterday,” one car driver told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “They won’t let us through, saying that the road is closed.”
“They said it will be reopened,” said another man. “But I don’t know when. Maybe in two days, maybe in two hours. So we’ll wait and see.”
The blockade also cut off four Karabakh villages adjacent to the Lachin corridor from the rest of the Armenian-populated territory.
“I had three guests visiting my family,” said Davit Davtian, the mayor of one of those villages, Mets Shen. “They left yesterday but couldn’t reach Stepanakert and had to come back [to Mets Shen.]”
In his words, about a dozen workers sent from Stepanakert to repair local roads and gas supply lines are also unable to return home.