At least 20 people were killed and nearly 300 others injured by an explosion at a crowded gas station in Nagorno-Karabakh as thousands of people rushed to flee into Armenia, separatist authorities in the region said Tuesday.
More than 13,500 people - about 12% of the region's population - have fled across the border since Azerbaijan defeated separatists who have governed the breakaway region for about 30 years in a swift military operation, Armenia's government said Tuesday morning.
Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh scrambled to flee as soon as Azerbaijan lifted a 10-month blockade on the region's only road to Armenia, causing severe shortages of food, medicine and fuel. While Azerbaijan has pledged to respect the rights of Armenians, many residents feared reprisals.
The explosion took place as people lined up to fill their cars at a gas station outside Stepanakert, the region's capital, late Monday. The separatist government's health department said that 13 bodies have been found and seven people have died of injuries from the blast, the cause of which remains unclear.
It added that 290 people have been hospitalized and scores of them remain in grave condition.
Armenia's health ministry said a helicopter brought some blast victims to Armenia on Tuesday morning, and more flights were expected.
Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said on X, formerly Twitter, that hospitals in Azerbaijan were ready to treat victims, but not if any had been taken to them. Azerbaijan has sent in burn-treatment medicine and other humanitarian aid, he said.
The Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces in a 24-hour blitz last week, forcing the separatist authorities to agree to lay down weapons and start talks on Nagorno-Karabakh's 'reintegration' into Azerbaijan.
Gasoline has been in short supply in Stepanakert for months, and the explosion further adds to anxiety about whether residents they will be able drive the 35 kilometers (22 miles) to the border.
Cars bearing large loads on their roofs crowded the streets of Stepanakert, and residents stood or lay along sidewalks next to heaps of luggage.
Moscow said that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh were assisting the evacuation. Some 700 people remained in the peacekeepers' camp there by Monday night.
Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within Azerbaijan under the Soviet Union, but separatist sentiment grew in the USSR's dying years and then flared into war.
Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, Azerbaijan took parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that it lost of control of during the earlier conflict.
Under the armistice that ended the 2020 fighting, Russia deployed a peacekeeping force of about 2,000 to the region.