Azerbaijan has said its troops entered a border district with Nagorno-Karabakh that was returned by Armenian separatists after nearly 30 years as part of a Russian-brokered peace agreement.
On Friday, troops moved into the Aghdam district, one of three that were to be returned, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said, a day after columns of Armenian soldiers and tanks left the territory.
Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district on December 1.
On Thursday, Armenian residents of Aghdam hastily collected pomegranates and persimmons from the trees surrounding their homes and filled vans with furniture, before fleeing before the official deadline to cede the mountainous province.
“We wanted to build a sauna, a kitchen. But now he had to dismantle everything. And I will burn down the house with everything I have when I leave, ”said Gagik Grigoryan, a 40-year-old electrician, 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 many more.
Former ex-Soviet rivals finally agreed to end hostilities last week as part of a Russian-brokered deal that calls for Moscow to deploy peacekeepers to the region and requires Armenia to give up swaths of territory.
Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts captured the territory and claimed an independence that has not been recognized internationally, not even by Armenia, after a post-Soviet war in the 1990s that left some 30,000 dead.
As part of last week’s peace agreement, Armenia agreed to return 15-20% of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory captured by Azerbaijan in recent fighting, including the historic city of Shusha.
The territory swap was originally due to begin on Sunday, with Armenians in the Kalbajar district fleeing en masse before the official deadline for Azerbaijan’s takeover.
But Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev postponed the deadline by a week for “humanitarian” considerations.
The 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force has deployed to the region’s administrative center, Stepanakert, and has established checkpoints and observation posts along the strategic Lachin corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
While Armenians in the provinces to be handed over to Azerbaijan left on an exodus, the Russian mission said Thursday that it had bussed 3,000 residents back to Stepanakert and other regions who had fled during six weeks of heavy bombardment.
Most of the Aghdam district in southwestern Azerbaijan 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 earlier this week that more than 2,400 of the country’s fighters had been killed in the fighting. Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military deaths.
After the signing of the peace accord last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the total of deaths including dozens of civilians had exceeded 4,000 people.
Russia’s decisive role in the deal has sidelined the United States and France, which negotiated 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 negotiate three separate ceasefires that collapsed when Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron this week urged Russia to clarify “ambiguities” about the ceasefire, including Turkey’s role in the peacekeeping mission.
Azerbaijan has insisted on a leading role for its staunch ally Turkey, which was widely accused by western countries Russia and Armenia of supplying Baku with mercenary fighters from Syria during weeks of fighting.
The Kremlin has poured cold water on Ankara’s hopes of deploying peacekeepers alongside Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding provinces, and instead insisted that Turkey observe the truce from checkpoints in Azerbaijan.
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