MOSCOW, Sept 24 (Reuters) - The 120,000 ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will leave for Armenia as they do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan and fear ethnic cleansing, the leadership of the breakaway region told Reuters on Sunday.
What is going on and what does it mean?
WHY ARE THEY LEAVING?
The Armenians of Karabakh, a territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but previously beyond Baku's control, were forced to declare a ceasefire on Sept. 20 after a lightning 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.
"Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands," David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters.
"The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilised world," Babayan said.
Azerbaijan says it will guarantee their rights and integrate the region, but the Armenians say they fear repression - and ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijan has denied any such intentions.
As the Soviet Union crumbled, what is known as the First Karabakh War erupted (1988-1994) between Armenians and their Azerbaijan. About 30,000 people were killed and more than a million people displaced.
The Armenian leaders of Karabakh said in a statement that all those made homeless by the most recent Azerbaijani military operation and wanting to leave would be escorted to Armenia by Russian peacekeepers.
WHERE WILL THEY GO?
If 120,000 people go down the Lachin corridor to Armenia, the small South Caucasian country could face a humanitarian crisis.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on Friday that space had been allocated for at least 40,000 people.
"If proper conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to live in their homes and there are no effective protection mechanisms against ethnic cleansing, the likelihood is rising that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see exile from their homeland as the only way to save their lives and identity," Pashinyan said on Sunday.
It was not immediately clear where 120,000 people could be housed in Armenia, whose population is just 2.8 million, ahead of winter.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had started registering people who were looking for unaccompanied children or who had lost contact with loved ones.
WHAT DOES AZERBAIJAN SAY?
For Azerbaijan, the exit of Armenians from Karabakh is a major victory that brings an apparent close to many years of war and squabbling over the region.
President Ilham Aliyev said his iron fist had consigned the idea of an independent ethnic Armenian Karabakh to history and that the region would be turned into a "paradise" as part of Azerbaijan.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE WIDER REGION?
A mass exodus could change the delicate balance of power in the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnicities crisscrossed with oil and gas pipelines, where Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran are jostling for influence.
Armenia's Pashinyan has said the crisis showed that his country could not rely on Russia to defend its interests, though Moscow has retorted that Armenia has few friends other than Russia.
Many Armenians blame Pashinyan, who lost a 2020 war to Azerbaijan over Karabakh, for losing Karabakh. Protests this week in the capital Yerevan called for his resignation.
Pashinyan said that unidentified forces were seeking to stoke a coup against him, and has accused Russian media of fighting an information war against him.
Russia has a military base in Armenia and regards itself as the prime security guarantor in the region.
This month, Armenia hosted a joint army exercise with the United States, which has criticised Azerbaijan's military operation. Turkey, a NATO member, supports Azerbaijan.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge Editing by Bernadette Baum)