Azerbaijan said on Friday that its troops had entered a district bordering Nagorno-Karabakh, formerly home to Armenian separatists, as part of a Russian-mediated agreement to end weeks of fighting in the region.
Troops moved into the Aghdam district, one of three that would relinquish, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said, a day after Armenian soldiers and tanks withdrew from the territory.
Azerbaijan will also restore the Kalbajar district, which was divided between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on 25 November and the Lachin district before 1 December.
Armenian residents of Aghdam quickly picked pomegranates from trees around their homes and packed vans with furniture before fleeing before the deadline to give up the mountainous province.
Before the surrender, the residents lit their homes and left nothing for their bitter rivals.
Violent clashes between Azerbaijan’s forces and Armenian separatists erupted in late September in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The fighting lasted for six weeks, leaving thousands dead and displacing many more.
The former Soviet opponents agreed to end the hostilities last week as part of an agreement reached by Moscow that includes the deployment of Russian peacekeepers and Armenia’s violation of territories.
Turkey has said some of its forces would also observe ceasefire arrangements from a coordination center in Azerbaijan, but Putin has stressed that Turkish troops would not be present in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A new era begins for Agdam. Aghdam has a special place in our future plans because it is a large district in terms of both territory and population. We will also restore Aghdam. The government will increase aid to ensure the return of citizens.
– Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) November 20, 2020
In a televised speech, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called Armenians who destroyed property while fleeing a “wild enemy.”
“They are embarrassing to the whole world,” he said.
On Thursday, people celebrated in Baku, with cars parading through the city with flags from Azerbaijan’s allies Russia and Turkey.
Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts had conquered the territory and claimed independence after a post-1990 war that left some 30,000 dead.
However, their claim was not recognized internationally, not even by Armenia.
As part of the peace agreement, Armenia agreed to return 15 to 20 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory captured by Azerbaijan during recent fighting, including the historic city of Shusha.
A Russian peacekeeping force with a total of 1,960 troops has now been deployed to the region, the Defense Ministry said on Friday, setting 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 emigration, the Russian mission said on Thursday that it had bussed 3,000 residents back to the regional capital Stepanakert and other areas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that providing humanitarian aid to residents of “hard-hit” Nagorno-Karabakh was now a priority and called on the UN and the World Health Organization to send delegations to the region.
He claimed that peacekeepers had “helped to stop the bloodshed and prevent further deaths.”
Most of Azerbaijan’s southwestern district of Aghdam has been under the control of Armenian separatists since 1993. Before the Soviet war, it was inhabited by 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”.
UNESCO said on Friday that Director-General Audrey Azoulay had proposed a preliminary field mission in the region during a meeting with representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan to ensure the protection of cultural heritage.
Armenia’s Ministry of Health said this week that more than 2,400 troops had been killed in the fighting. Azerbaijan has not revealed its military deaths.
The agreement to relinquish questioned territory spurred a political crisis in Armenia with the opposition flooding the streets of the capital Yerevan and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
The presidency announced on Friday the replacement of Defense Minister David Tonoyan.
Armenian police told AFP they had held dozens of protesters on Friday at a rally in Yerevan where protesters urging Pashinyan to resign formed a human chain and blocked major roads.