“The troops moved to the Aghdam district, one of three to be returned,” Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said, a day after a line of Armenian soldiers and tanks left the area. The Guardian, Friday (20/11/2020).
Apart from Aghdam, Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district which is sandwiched between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district on December 1.
On Thursday, Armenians in Aghdam hurriedly plucked pomegranates and persimmons from the trees surrounding their homes and packed vans with furniture, before fleeing before the official deadline to give up the mountainous province.
“We want to build a sauna, a kitchen. But now I have to dismantle everything. And I will burn the house with everything I have when I go away,” Gagik Grigoryan, a 40-year-old electric worker, told AFP before leaving his home.
Fierce clashes between Azerbaijani 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 more.
The two finally agreed to end last week’s hostilities under the framework of a Russian-brokered deal. Under the deal, Moscow deployed peacekeeping to the region and required Armenia to surrender part of the territory.
Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts seized the territory and claimed independence that has not been recognized internationally, even by Armenia, after the post-Soviet war in the 1990s that killed an estimated 30,000 people.
As part of a peace deal last week, Armenia agreed to return about 15 to 20 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory Azerbaijan captured in recent fighting, including the historic city of Shusha.
Territorial swaps were originally set to begin on Sunday, with Armenians in the Kalbajar district fleeing en masse before the official deadline for a takeover by Azerbaijan.(Also read:Scorched Earth! Armenia Burns Home before Handing over Village to Azerbaijan)
But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev postponed the deadline for one week due to “humanitarian” considerations.
Meanwhile a Russian peacekeeping force of about 2,000 has been deployed to the administrative center of the region, Stepanakert. They set up checkpoints and observation posts along the strategic Lachin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
While Armenians in the provinces due to be handed over to Azerbaijan have left, the Russian mission on Thursday said it had brought about 3,000 residents back to Stepanakert and other regions that had fled for six weeks due to the intense conflict.
Most of Azerbaijan’s southwestern district, Aghdam, has been under the control of Armenian separatists since 1993. Prior to the post-Soviet war, the district was home to about 130,000 people – mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis who were driven from their homes.
Armenia’s health ministry said earlier this week that more than 2,400 of the country’s fighters had died in the fighting. Azerbaijan itself has not disclosed the casualties suffered by its military.
After the peace agreement was signed last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the total death toll, including dozens of civilians, had surpassed 4,000.(Also read:Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia Agree to End Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict)
Russia’s pivotal role in the settlement has sidelined the US and French international players, who brokered a ceasefire in the 1990s but failed to deliver a long-term resolution.
During the recent conflict, France, the US and Russia attempted to mediate three separate ceasefires that collapsed as Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of abuses.
French President Emmanuel Macron this week urged Russia to clarify “ambiguities” over a Moscow-brokered ceasefire, including Turkey’s role in peacekeeping missions.(Also read:Russia-Turkey finally agreed to cooperate on the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire)
Azerbaijan has emphasized a vital role for Turkey’s staunch ally, which Western countries, Russia and Armenia have widely accused of supplying Baku with mercenary fighters from Syria during the weeks of fighting.
The Kremlin has poured cold water over Ankara’s hopes of deploying a peacekeeping force alongside Russian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces and insisted instead that Turkey would observe the ceasefire from a monitoring post in Azerbaijan.