Military moves into first of districts handed over under Russia-brokered peace deal
Azerbaijan forces have entered a district bordering Nagorno-Karabakh as the country begins retaking territory held for nearly 30 years by the Armenian-backed government as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal.
Video showed troops and armoured vehicles moving into the district of Aghdam, which Armenia conceded in a controversial armistice, one day after columns of its soldiers and tanks rolled out of the territory.
Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on 25 November and the Lachin district by 1 December.
On Thursday, Armenian residents of Aghdam hurriedly picked pomegranates and persimmons from trees surrounding their homes and packed vans with furniture, before fleeing in the run-up to 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 Reuters before abandoning his home.
Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis are expected to return to the region. On Friday, Azerbaijan quickly organised prayers at a local mosque to signal the return of the city to the control of the mostly Muslim country.
Political tensions have remained high in Armenia, where the truce was viewed by many as a capitulation by the government of prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan.
On Friday, several Armenian news sources reported that the minister of defence, David Tonoyan, had tendered his resignation in what, if confirmed, would be another exit of a high-ranking official from his cabinet.
The country’s foreign minister resigned earlier this week and its president, Armen Sarkisian, had called for Pashinyan to step down and allow snap elections to lead the country out of the crisis.
Pashinyan has responded with calls for unity and has issued a government roadmap out of the crisis that include returning refugees to the Karabakh region, which Armenia calls Artsakh, and modernising the country’s military. He has called for greater development in Stepanakert and those territories remaining under Armenian control.
Fierce clashes between Azerbaijan’s forces and Armenian separatists broke out in late September in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The war lasted six weeks, leaving thousands dead and displacing many more.
The longstanding ex-Soviet rivals finally agreed to end hostilities last week under the framework of a Russian-brokered accord under which Moscow will deploy peacekeepers to the region and Armenia must cede swathes of territory.
Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts captured the territory and claimed independence that has not been recognised internationally, even by Armenia, after a post-Soviet 1990s war that left 30,000 dead.
As part of last week’s peace deal, Armenia agreed to return 15-20% of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory captured by Azerbaijan in recent fighting, including the historical town of Shusha.
The exchange of territory was originally expected to begin on Sunday, with Armenians in the Kalbajar district fleeing en masse before the official deadline for Azerbaijan’s takeover.
But Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, postponed the deadline by one week over “humanitarian” considerations.
The Russian peacekeeping force of 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 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 130,000 people – mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis who were expelled from their homes.
Armenia’s health ministry said this week that more than 2,400 of the country’s fighters had been killed in the clashes. Azerbaijan has not revealed its military fatalities.
After the peace accord was signed last week, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said total fatalities that included dozens of civilians had surpassed 4,000 people.
Russia’s decisive role in the settlement has sidelined 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 US and Russia attempted to broker three separate ceasefires that collapsed as Armenia and Azerbaijan accused the other of violations.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, this week urged Russia to clarify “ambiguities” over the ceasefire, 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 observe the truce from monitoring posts in Azerbaijan.