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Sen. Peters returns from the Armenian border, where he witnessed a refugee crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse now of a crisis on the edge of Azerbaijan. It's an oil-rich country on the shores of the Caspian Sea. And for many years, a separatist group held part of its territory. They were ethnic Armenians who proclaimed their own republic. Finally, in recent weeks, Azerbaijan's government retook that territory. Many ethnic Armenians have fled to the next country over, which is Armenia. Some American lawmakers went to that border recently, and one of them was Gary Peters of Michigan. Senator, welcome.

GARY PETERS: Well, good to be with you this morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just remember, all politics is local. This seems far away. But I know your state is a big Armenian American community, so people are concerned. And you went over to have a look. What did you see and hear?

PETERS: Well, I did go over to get a look and to see what was happening. And just before I got there, the Azerbaijan military attacked with a military operation, and the situation got worse. They were, prior to that, being subjected to a blockade for several months - a dire humanitarian situation for the Armenians there without food and medical supplies - a pretty desperate situation that got worse.

INSKEEP: Can you give us just a picture of the landscape? Is it mountainous? Is it remote, for example. What's it like to be there?

PETERS: Well, it is very mountainous, particularly in the border region. I was at the Lachin corridor, which is a road that goes from Armenia into Nagorno-Karabakh. And it's just a - one way through a mountain pass which was blockaded by Azerbaijan government forces as well as Russian peacekeepers.

INSKEEP: When you mentioned that one road going into the separatist region, I guess that one road is the one road that people are having to flee to Armenia if that's their chosen course. Is that right?

PETERS: No, that is correct. When I was there, it was still blocked. People were basically trapped there. No one was allowed out. So it was a lonely road. But we knew that folks in Nagorno-Karabakh were in a pretty desperate situation.

INSKEEP: And we now have a report. It's hard to get details, but it said that dozens of people have been killed in that separatist region, or former separatist region, killed in an explosion at a fuel depot. We don't know what's happened, but that may suggest the desperate situation that many people are in, doesn't it?

PETERS: Oh, it definitely does. In fact, fuel was not there. It's going to be tough for people to even put fuel in a car, if they have one, to get out. And that's the one thing that is really critically important right now, is to have international observers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

INSKEEP: I want to figure out who has leverage, who has power. I'm thinking Azerbaijan, where this separatist region is - is or was - is a former Soviet republic. So we can presume that Russia has influence there. Does the United States have a lot of influence or connections there?

PETERS: Well, Russia is on the ground. There are bases in Armenia as well. We went by a couple of those bases. Russian peacekeepers are there. They do have a security agreement with Armenia. But from all accounts, the Russians basically stayed in their garrison, did not intervene in any way when Azerbaijan attacked the region. Their role is really uncertain right now.

INSKEEP: Does the United States have a particular role to play?

PETERS: I think the United States has a role to play. In fact, that's why I was there. Certainly, the Biden administration has sent officials as well to provide humanitarian aid right now for folks who are streaming out of that region. But certainly, we need to continue to play a role to make sure that Armenians in the region can have their human rights protected, can live with dignity and can have a measure of security.

INSKEEP: And does the United States have any instruments of power? Obviously not troops there, but does the United States have cards to play?

PETERS: Well, it's diplomatic. We need to use our diplomatic efforts to make sure that people in that region have some level of security and know that their rights are protected. Certainly, the Armenians are concerned that the Azerbaijani government's engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocide. If that's the case, it certainly has a special meaning to the Armenians given the history that they have.

INSKEEP: Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, thank you very much for your insights.

PETERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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