Azerbaijan on Sunday postponed taking control of a territory ceded by Armenian forces in a ceasefire agreement, but denounced civilians leaving the area for burning houses and committing what it called “ecological terror.”
The ceasefire ended six weeks of intense fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and territories outside its formal borders that had been under the control of Armenian forces since 1994.
The agreement calls for Azerbaijan to take control of the outlying territories.
The first, Kalbajar, was to be turned over on Sunday, but Azerbaijan agreed to delay the takeover until Wednesday next week after a request from Armenia.
Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said worsening weather conditions made the withdrawal of Armenian forces and civilians difficult along the single road through mountainous territory that connects Kalbajar with Armenia.
After the agreement was announced early on Tuesday last week, many distraught residents preparing to evacuate set their houses ablaze to make them unusable to Azerbaijanis who would move in.
“Armenians are damaging the environment and civilian objects. Environmental damage, ecological terror must be prevented,” Hajiyev said.
Prior to a separatist war that ended in 1994, Kalbajar was populated almost exclusively by Azerbaijanis, but the territory then came under Armenian control and Armenians moved in. Azerbaijan deemed their presence illegal.
“The placement and settlement of the Armenian population in the occupied territory of the Kalbajar region was illegal... All illegal settlements there must be evicted,” Hajiyev said.
The imminent renewal of Azerbaijani control raised wide concerns about the fate of Armenian cultural and religious sites, particularly Dadivank, a noted Armenian Apostolic Church monastery that dates back to the ninth century.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev assured Russian President Vladimir Putin, who negotiated the ceasefire and is sending about 2,000 peacekeeping troops, that Christian churches would be protected.
“Christians of Azerbaijan will have access to these churches,” Aliyev’s office said in statement on Sunday.
Azerbaijan is about 95 percent Muslim and Armenia is overwhelmingly Christian.
In other developments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday asked Turkey’s parliament to authorize sending soldiers to Azerbaijan to establish a “peacekeeping center” with Russia to monitor the truce.
The deployment would be active for one year and its size determined by Erdogan.
His request followed two days of talks in Ankara with Russian officials about how the two regional powers intend to jointly implement the Russian-brokered ceasefire.
Turkey is one of Azerbaijan’s closest allies and has strongly defended its right to reclaim lands it lost to ethnic Armenian separatists in a 1988 to 1994 war.
Moscow has stressed repeatedly that Turkey would have no troops on the ground under the truce deal’s terms.
The Russian-brokered agreement states that a “peacekeeping center is being deployed to control the ceasefire” but does not specify its formal role.
Additional reporting by AFP
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