MOSCOW (AP) – The President of Azerbaijan said on Friday that his forces had taken control of the Agdam region, a territory ceded by Armenia in a ceasefire agreement that ended fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ceasefire, aided by Russia last week, envisions Armenia handing over control of some areas it owns outside Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Agdam is the first to be betrayed.
“Today, with infinite pride, I am informing my people about Agdam’s release,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told the nation. “Agdam is ours!”
Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to celebrate the handover of the Agdam region.
Nagorno-Karabakh is located in Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of Armenian-backed ethnic forces since Armenia since the separatist war ended there in 1994. This war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but a significant adjacent territory in Armenian hands.
The heavy fighting that erupted on September 27 marked the biggest escalation of the conflict between the two former Soviet nations in more than a quarter of a century, killing hundreds and possibly thousands.
The ceasefire last week put an end to the violence after several failed attempts to establish a permanent ceasefire. This came two days after Azerbaijan, which has made significant progress, announced it had captured the strategically important city of Shusha.
On Friday, Aliyev noted that Azerbaijan was taking over the Agdam region “without a single shot (shot) or loss (suffered)”, and called it a “great political success” that would not have been possible without military gains.
“Azerbaijan has managed to achieve what it wanted on the political scene after winning a brilliant victory on the battlefield,” the president said.
The agreement, celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, has embittered many Armenians. Mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, immediately after the peace agreement was announced last week, and many ethnic Armenians are leaving territories to be handed over to Azerbaijan, setting fire to their homes with a brutal farewell gesture.
Although the reconstruction of the region is a triumph for Azerbaijan, the joy of returning is permeated with grief and anger. The capital of the region, Agdam, was once home to 50,000, famous for its white houses and intricate three-story teahouses, but it is so ruined that it is sometimes called “Caucasian Hiroshima.”
After the population was driven out of battle in 1993, they were followed by Armenian looters who stripped the city in search of loot and building materials. One of the happier eccentricities in the city – the Bread Museum – is in ruins. The cognac factory is gone.
Today, the only structurally complete building is the mosque; from the top of the intricately shaped minarets, the view is of a huge area of jagged concrete and houses reduced to shells, completely affected by the growth of vegetation for a quarter of a century.
Associated Press writer Aida Sultanova in London contributed to the report.