Armenia on Sunday would begin handing over disputed territory to Azerbaijan as part of a peace deal that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Residents of the Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan, which was controlled by Armenian separatists for decades, began a mass exodus from the mountainous province in the days leading up to the official day of withdrawal.
AFP reporters saw fleeing residents stack furniture and kitchen utensils in vehicles before leaving for Armenia, and some of the departing ethnic Armenians said they had dug up graves they feared would be desecrated by Azerbaijanis.
Thick plumes of smoke rose across the valley near the village of Charektar after residents set fire to their homes and preferred to wreak havoc in their wake and homes that would be uninhabitable for Azerbaijanis.
A Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed this week to Nagorno-Karabakh. They set up checkpoints and positions in the region’s administrative center, Stepanakert, as part of the terms of the agreement, which see Armenia cede parts of territory that Azerbaijan’s forces gained in the fighting.
Moscow’s peacekeeping mission, which the military said included soldiers previously stationed in Syria, includes about 2,000 troops for a renewable five-year mission.
Former Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after Russia, France and the United States sought a ceasefire during the nearly two months of clashes.
An important part of the peace agreement includes Armenia’s return of Kalbajar, as well as the Aghdam district by 20 November and the Lachin district by 1 December, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.
Outrage over peace agreement
Armenia admitted on Saturday that 2,317 warriors were killed in clashes in which both sides accused the other of targeting civilian infrastructure.
Azerbaijan has not revealed its military accidents and the real toll after weeks of fighting is expected to be much higher.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said the death toll had exceeded 4,000 and that tens of thousands of people had been forced to flee their homes.
Before the masses left, the Armenians flocked to the Dadivank monastery nestled in a gorge in Kalbajar for a final visit before being taken to Azerbaijan, with AFP journalists witnessing a dozen women praying to be baptized at the religious site.
Kalbajar were inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Azeris before being expelled by the Armenians during the war of the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a majority of the homes abandoned belonged to the former Azeris.
The Armenian government controversially subsidized the region’s settlement of ethnic Armenians.
The peace agreement with Azerbaijan has sparked a week of protests in Armenia in which demonstrations and opposition parties call on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign.
Former head of Armenia’s National Security Service Artur Vanetsyan was arrested on Saturday on charges of plotting to assassinate Pashinyan and seize power.
Azerbaijan has pushed for Ankara’s involvement in the settlement, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that his country would jointly monitor the ceasefire with Russia.
Turkey, a key ally of Azerbaijan, was widely accused by Western nations, Russia and Armenia of sending mercenaries from Syria to strengthen Azerbaijan’s army.
But Russia has ruled out Ankara’s direct involvement in peacekeeping missions and instead insisted that Turkey monitor the mission from an observatory on Azerbaijan’s territory.
( Jowharwith AFP)