Azerbaijan said on Friday its troops had entered a district bordering Nagorno-Karabakh handed back by Armenian separatists after almost 30 years as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal to end weeks of fighting in the region.
Troops moved into the district of Aghdam, one of three due to be handed back, the Azerbaijan defence ministry said, a day after columns of Armenian soldiers and tanks rolled out of the territory.
Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district by December 1. Earlier Armenian residents of Aghdam hurriedly picked pomegranates and persimmons from trees surrounding their homes and packed vans with furniture, before fleeing ahead of the official deadline to cede the mountainous province.
"We wanted to build a sauna, kitchen. But now I had to dismantle everything. And I’ll burn down the house with everything I own when I leave," Gagik Grigoryan, a 40-year-old electrical worker, told AFP before abandoning his home. AFP journalists on Thursday saw Armenian soldiers destroying buildings of their headquarters in Aghdam, a ghost town 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 behind for their longstanding rivals. Fierce clashes between Azerbaijan’s forces and Armenian separatists broke out in late September in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The brutal war lasted six weeks, leaving thousands dead and displacing many more. The ex-Soviet adversaries finally agreed to end hostilities last week under the framework of a Russian-brokered accord that sees Moscow deploy peacekeepers to the region and requires Armenia to cede swathes of territory.
AFP journalists reported that the last residents left the Aghdam area less than an hour before Azerbaijani forces took control. In a televised address on Friday Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said Armenians destroying property as they fled were a "wild enemy".
"They are embarrassing themselves in front of the whole world," he said. Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts captured the territory and claimed independence that has not been recognised internationally, even by Armenia, following a post-Soviet 1990s war that left some 30,000 dead.
As part of last week’s peace deal, Armenia agreed to return some 15 to 20 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory captured by Azerbaijan in recent fighting, including the historical town of Shusha.
The exchange of territory was due 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 one week over "humanitarian" considerations.
The Russian peacekeeping force of some 2,000 troops has deployed to the administrative centre of the region, Stepanakert, 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 have left in an exodus, the Russian mission on Thursday said it had bussed some 3,000 residents back to Stepanakert and other regions who had fled during the six weeks of heavy shelling.
Most of Azerbaijan’s south-western district of Aghdam has been under the control of Armenian separatists since 1993. Before the post-Soviet war it was inhabited by some 130,000 people -- mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis who were expelled from their homes.
In his national address 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 fatalities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week the total fatalities including dozens of civilians had surpassed 4,000 people. Russia’s decisive role in the settlement has sidelined international players the United States and France, which brokered a ceasefire in the 1990s but failed to deliver a long-term resolution.
During the most recent conflict, France, the United States and Russia attempted to broker three separate ceasefires that collapsed as Armenia and Azerbaijan accused the other of violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron this week urged Russia to clarify "ambiguities" over the deal, including Turkey’s role in the peacekeeping mission.
Azerbaijan has insisted on a prominent role for its staunch ally Turkey, which was widely accused by Western countries, Russia and Armenia of supplying Baku with mercenary fighters from Syria over the weeks of fighting.
The Kremlin has poured cold water on Ankara’s hopes of deploying peacekeepers alongside Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces and instead insisted that Turkey would observe the truce from monitoring posts in Azerbaijan.
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