Azerbaijan said on Friday that its troops had entered a district bordering Nagorno-Karabakh, handed over by Armenian separatists after nearly 30 years as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal to end weeks of fighting in the region.
Troops moved into the Aghdam district, one of three to be handed over, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense said, a day after columns of Armenian soldiers and tanks rolled out of the territory.
Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district kilt between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district before December 1.
Former Armenian residents of Aghdam quickly picked pomegranates and persimmons from trees surrounding their homes and packed vans with furniture before fleeing ahead of the official deadline to relinquish the mountainous province.
“We wanted to build a sauna, a kitchen. But now I had to dismantle everything. And I burn down the house with everything I own when I leave,”
AFP reporters on Thursday saw Armenian soldiers destroy buildings at their headquarters in Aghdam, a ghost town that was abandoned for nearly three decades where the separatist army had established a base.
In the hours leading up to the handover, residents of the district set their homes on fire, leaving nothing for their longtime rivals.
Heavy clashes between Azerbaijan’s forces and Armenian separatists erupted in late September in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The brutal war lasted for six weeks, leaving thousands dead and displacing many more.
The former Soviet opponents finally agreed to end the hostilities last week in the framework of an agreement with Russian mediation, which sees Moscow deploy peacekeepers in the region and demands that Armenia cede territories.
– ‘Wild enemies’ –
AFP reporters reported that the last residents left the Aghdam area less than an hour before Azerbaijani forces took control.
In a televised speech on Friday, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said Armenians destroying property as they fled was a “wild enemy.”
“They are ashamed in front of the whole world,” he said.
Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts conquered the territory and claimed independence that has not been recognized internationally, not even by Armenia, after a post-Soviet war of the 1990s that left about 30,000 dead.
As part of last week’s peace deal, Armenia agreed to return about 15 to 20 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory conquered 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 Azerbaijan’s takeover.
But Aliyev postponed the deadline by a week due to “humanitarian” considerations.
– Russia boasts return of refugees –
The Russian peacekeeping force of about 2,000 troops has deployed to the administrative center of the Stepanakert region and set up checkpoints and observation posts along the strategic Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
While Armenians in the provinces to be handed over to Azerbaijan are back in an exodus, the Russian mission said Thursday that it had housed about 3,000 residents back to Stepanakert and other regions that had fled during the six weeks of heavy shelling.
Most of Aghdam’s southwestern district of Aghdam has been under the control of Armenian separatists since 1993. Before the post-Soviet war, it was inhabited by about 130,000 people – mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis who were expelled from their homes.
In his national speech on Friday, Aliyev promised Azerbaijanis that they would return to “ancestral lands” in Aghdam.
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 revealed its military deaths.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the total death toll, including dozens of civilians, had exceeded 4,000 people.
Russia’s crucial role in the settlement has ruled out international actors the United States and France, which mediated a ceasefire in the 1990s but did not deliver a long-term decision.
During the recent conflict, France, the United States and Russia tried to mediate three separate ceasefires that collapsed when Armenia and Azerbaijan accused the other of violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron this week called on Russia to clarify “ambiguities” over the deal, including Turkey’s role in the peacekeeping mission.
Azerbaijan has insisted on a prominent role for its loyal ally Turkey, which was widely accused by Western countries, Russia and Armenia of supplying Baku with mercenaries from Syria during weeks of fighting.
The Kremlin has poured cold water on Ankara’s hopes of deploying peacekeepers along with Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces, insisting instead that Turkey would monitor the ceasefire from surveillance posts in Azerbaijan.
bur-jbr-acl / jbr / pma