Azerbaijan said on Friday that its troops had entered a district bordering Nagorno-Karabakh, returned by Armenian separatists after nearly 30 years as part of a Russian-mediated peace deal to end weeks of fighting in the region.
Troops have moved to Agdam County, and one of the three must be returned, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said, a day after columns of Armenian soldiers and tanks withdrew from the territory.
On November 25, Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district, sandwiched between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and the Lachin region by December 1.
Earlier, Agdam’s Armenians hastily harvested pomegranate and persimmon from trees surrounding their homes and packed furniture vans before fleeing before the official deadline to cede the mountainous province.
“We wanted to build a sauna, a kitchen. But now I had to dismantle everything. And I will burn down the house with everything I own when I leave,”
AFP reporters on Thursday saw Armenian soldiers destroy buildings from their headquarters in Agdam, a ghost town abandoned for nearly three decades where a separatist army has set up base.
In the hours leading up to the show, residents of the area set fire to their homes, leaving nothing behind their longtime rivals.
In late September, fierce clashes broke out in the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian separatists. The brutal war lasted six weeks, leaving thousands dead and displacing many others.
Former Soviet opponents finally agreed to end hostilities last week as part of a Russian-brokered agreement under which Moscow deploys peacekeepers in the region and demands that Armenia cede territory.
– “wild enemy” –
AFP reported that the last residents had left the Agdam area less than an hour before Azerbaijani forces took control.
In a televised address, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Armenians destroying property when they fled were a “wild enemy”.
“They are embarrassed in front of the whole world,” he said.
The separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding areas have taken over the territory and claimed independence, which is not internationally recognized even by Armenia, after the 1990 war after the Soviet Union, which killed about 30,000 people.
As part of last week’s peace deal, Armenia agreed to return about 15 to 20 per cent of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, taken over by Azerbaijan in recent fighting, including the historic city of Shusha.
The exchange of territory was to begin on Sunday, with Armenians in the Kalbajar district fleeing en masse before the official deadline for the takeover of Azerbaijan.
But Aliyev postponed the deadline by a week due to “humanitarian” reasons.
– Russia can boast of returning refugees –
Russia’s peacekeeping force of about 2,000 troops is stationed in the administrative center of the Stepanakert region and has set up checkpoints and observation posts along Lachin’s strategic corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
As Armenians in the provinces to be handed over to Azerbaijan left for deportation, the Russian mission said on Thursday it had returned about 3,000 residents to Stepanakert and other regions who had fled the six-week shelling.
Most of Azerbaijan’s southwestern district of Ahdam has been under Armenian separatist control since 1993. Before the post-Soviet war, it was home to about 130,000 people – mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis displaced from their homes.
In a national address Friday, Aliyev promised Azerbaijanis that they would return to “ancestral lands” in Agdam.
Armenia’s health ministry said earlier this week that more than 2,400 of the country’s fighters had been killed in the fighting. Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military casualties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the total number of deaths, including dozens of civilians, had exceeded 4,000.
Russia’s crucial role in the settlement has been eliminated by international players, the United States and France, who achieved a ceasefire in the 1990s but failed to reach a long-term resolution.
During the latest conflict, France, the United States and Russia tried to achieve three separate ceasefire regimes, which collapsed when Armenia and Azerbaijan accused others of violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged this week to call on Russia to clarify “ambiguities” in the deal, including Turkey’s role in the peacekeeping mission.
Azerbaijan insists on the prominent role of its staunch ally Turkey, which has been widely accused by Western countries, Russia and Armenia of supplying Syrian mercenaries to Baku during the weeks of hostilities.
The Kremlin has poured cold water on Ankara’s hopes of deploying peacekeepers with Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces, and has instead urged Turkey to abide by the ceasefire from observation posts in Azerbaijan.
bur-jbr-acl / jbr / pma