Armenia's record men's football goalscorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan said his "heart breaks" at the mass exile of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh ©Getty Images

Armenian footballer Henrikh Mkhitaryan has urged the international community to "stand up against ethnic cleansing" in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, following a fresh military offensive by Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have long contested the disputed territory with periodic escalations.

Armenian forces established a de facto independent but internationally unrecognised Republic of Artsakh after the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, but Azerbaijan took back parts of the territory in a 44-day war in 2020.

Recent tensions escalated into an effective Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, in December last year, claiming it had been used by the Armenian Government to ship weapons to separatist forces, although this was denied.

A military offensive by Azerbaijan last month led to a surrender of the Republic of Artsakh, which is set to dissolve on January 1 2024.

A ceasefire was brokered by Russia after at least 200 ethnic Armenians and dozens of Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, but there has been an exodus from the region in which more than 100,000 people are reported to have fled their homes.

Armenia's Government has said 80 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh's population has left since the military offensive, and accused Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing.

Authoritarian Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said after the offensive it had reclaimed sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh "with an iron fist".

Many of those leave fearing persecution and do not trust pledges from Baku, but Azerbaijan has rejected the allegations of ethnic cleansing and claimed it wants to integrate the region's population as "equal citizens".

A United Nations mission has arrived in the region for the first time in three decades.

Mkhitaryan, Armenia's men's national team's all-time leading goalscorer, urged leaders to learn from history to protect ethnic Armenians in the region.

"My heart breaks as I learn about the stories of trauma, loss, and severe violations of human rights of thousands of Armenian families who are being forcibly displaced from Nagorno Karabakh and flee for Armenia in a mass exodus," he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

"The situation that people in Nagorno-Karabakh are suffering right now, brings memories from history’s darkest hours.

"We often look back to those dark pages of indiscriminate killings, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps with remorse, and regret that no one did enough to stop it.

"We cannot bring back the victims from those past atrocities, but we are still in time to prevent genocide from unfolding in the Nagorno-Karabakh."

The 34-year-old argued humanitarian aid urgently needed to be provided through the Lachin corridor.

"In the midst of this horror, we need immediate mobilization (sic) of emergency humanitarian aid through the Lachine Corridor (sic) and airlift and the deployment of international monitoring missions to put a stop to these crimes against humanity," Mkhitaryan said.

"It is now urgent for international leaders to stand up against ethnic cleansing and use all possible political tools to put an end to military actions in the region.

"Children have the right to live in peace in their homeland."

When playing for English club Arsenal in 2019, Mkhitaryan was forced to miss the UEFA Europa League final held at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan's capital due to safety concerns, despite claims from UEFA assurances of his security had been provided.

Around 80 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh's population is reported to have left for Armenia since Azerbaijan's military offensive last month ©Getty Images
Around 80 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh's population is reported to have left for Armenia since Azerbaijan's military offensive last month ©Getty Images

Earlier in the 2018-2019 campaign, he was left out of Arsenal's squad for a visit to Qarabağ FK, a club historically based in the city of Aghdam but which has played in Baku since 1993 because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

He had similarly been unable to travel to play against Azerbaijani club Gabala SC with German team Borussia Dortmund in 2015.

Armenia and Azerbaijan were due to face each other in qualifying for the 2008 men's UEFA European Championship, but both matches were cancelled and both teams awarded no points after they failed to agree on where to play.

Their teams and clubs have been kept apart in UEFA and FIFA draws since then.

Armenia sent a team of 25 athletes to the inaugural European Games in Baku, but they received resounding boos on arrival at the Opening Ceremony.

Further tensions between the two nations have played out in the sporting arena since then, including at last year's European Weightlifting Championships in Armenia's capital Yerevan.

A worker at the Opening Ceremony set fire to Azerbaijan's flag, leading to its team withdrawing.

Armenia's Government later condemned the flag burning incident, while medallists from Turkey at the Championships dedicated their medals to Azerbaijan, with the two countries enjoying strong ties.

Russia’s Olympic men's singles tennis silver medallist Karen Khachanov, born in Moscow to an Armenian father, caused anger in Azerbaijan at January's Australian Open, when he wrote on a camera "keep believing until the very end. Artsakh, hold on".

Armenian athletes did not compete at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Championships in Baku in August due to security concerns and political tensions.