Sergei Grits / AP
The Azerbaijani military has entered Aghdam, the first of a cluster of districts around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region that has ceded to the country in its recent ceasefire with Armenia. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Friday announced the troops’ inclusion in a celebration speech to the country.
“These days, we are writing the new, glorious story for our people and our country. This is a historic victory,” Aliyev said in a series of English-language statements posted to Twitter. “From now on, we will move much faster down the development path.”
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry confirmed that “units from Azerbaijan’s army” had crossed into Aghdam on Friday under a peace deal mediated by Russia.
The agreement, signed by Azerbaijan and Armenia after more than six weeks of renewed bloodshed – and several failed ceasefires – stipulates that Armenia will hand over three disputed districts: Aghdam, Lachin and Kelbajar. Azerbaijani forces are expected to join the others within two weeks.
The moment Friday marked a milestone in a conflict dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union as separatists took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic-Armenian province within Azerbaijan. The fighting, which largely ended in 1994, killed about 30,000 people and displaced 100,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from the region. Anti-Armenian riots in the Azerbaijani capital Baku also drove thousands from the city.
A stalemate has prevailed since 1994 with the mountainous area under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Armenia, while still being internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
With encouragement from Turkey, which shares linguistic and historical ties with Azerbaijan, Baku launched an attempt to regain territory in late September. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, although Azerbaijan has not released its casualties. International actors fought to try to curb bloodshed with diplomacy – including the United States, which brokered a ceasefire praised by President Trump, although it quickly faltered last month.
It was Russia that finally succeeded in negotiating the latest ceasefire, which cemented significant territorial gains gained by Azerbaijan in recent weeks. In his statement on Friday, the Azerbaijani president praised the deal as a “huge political success.”
Aziz Karimov / AP
Such a hopeful mood was evident in Baku, where crowds of protesters with national flags gathered in the streets to celebrate the return of the territory.
But the jubilation was not shared in Armenia, where thousands of protesters last week expressed their anger and frustration over the ceasefire.
Nor was it to be found among the ethnic Armenian inhabitants of Aghdam, many of whom allegedly fled their homes in anticipation of the arrival of the Azerbaijani military.
“We wanted to build a sauna, a kitchen. But now I had to dismantle everything,” a resident told Agence France-Presse before leaving his home. “And I burn down the house with everything I own when I travel.”