MOSCOW (AP) – The President of Azerbaijan declared on Friday that his forces have taken control of the Aghdam region, an area ceded by Armenia in a ceasefire agreement that ended the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The ceasefire, brokered by Russia last week, stipulated that Armenia hand over control of some territories contained outside the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Aghdam is the first to be turned around.
“Today, with a sense of infinite pride, I inform my people of the liberation of Aghdam,”
Crowds of people with national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital Baku to celebrate the handover of the Aghdam region.
Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces supported by Armenia since a separatist war ended in 1994. This war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but a significant surrounding area in Armenian hands.
Heavy fighting that flared up on September 27 marked the largest escalation of the decades-old conflict between the two ex-Soviet nations for over a quarter of a century, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people.
The ceasefire last week stopped the violence after several failed attempts to establish a lasting ceasefire. It came two days after Azerbaijan, which had made significant progress, announced that it had seized the strategically important city of Shusha.
Aliyev noted on Friday that Azerbaijan is taking over the Aghdam region “without a single shot (fired) or loss (slightly)” and called it a “major political success” that would not have been possible without military gains.
“Azerbaijan was able to achieve what it wanted in the political arena after winning a glorious victory on the battlefield,” the president said.
The agreement, which was celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, has left many Armenians bitter. Mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, immediately after the peace deal was announced last week, and many ethnic Armenians have left the areas to be handed over to Azerbaijan, burning their houses in a bitter farewell.
Although regaining the region is a triumph for Azerbaijan, the joy of returning shoots with sorrow and anger. The region’s largest city, Aghdam, was once home to 50,000, known for its white homes and an extensive three-story tea house, but it is so ruined that it is sometimes called the “Caucasus-Hiroshima.”
After the population was displaced in 1993 by fighting, they were followed by Armenian looters who deprived the city of bar and sought both booty and building materials. One of the city’s happier eccentricities, the Bread Museum, is in ruins. The cognac factory is gone.
Today, the only structural whole building is the mosque; from the top of the carefully patterned minarets, the view of a large area of roofed concrete and houses is reduced to shells, all interfering with a quarter-century of vegetation growth.
Associated Press author Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.