Azerbaijan yesterday said that its forces had entered the second of three districts to be handed back by Armenia as part of a deal that ended weeks of fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense in Baku said in a statement that “units of the Azerbaijani army entered the Kalbajar region on November 25” under the deal signed earlier this month by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.
Wedged between the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and Armenia, Kalbajar was initially scheduled for handover on Nov. 15, but the deadline was postponed by Azerbaijan for humanitarian reasons.
“Engineering work has been completed to ensure the movement of our units in this direction, the difficult mountain roads along the route of the troops’ movement are being cleared of mines and prepared for use,” the ministry said.
Armenia agreed to hand over three districts around Karabakh — Aghdam, Kalbajar and Lachin — as part of the deal that stopped an Azerbaijani offensive that had reclaimed swathes of territory lost to Armenian separatists in a 1990s war.
Aghdam was ceded on Friday last week and Lachin is to be handed over by Tuesday next week.
In the days before the handover, residents of Kalbajar packed all they could take, determined to leave nothing to their long-term foe.
Journalists saw locals collecting electric cables, loading parts of a hydroelectric power station into a truck and even cutting down trees to take with them as they left.
Azerbaijanis who fled the region nearly 30 years ago are expected to return.
Local bricklayer Gagik Yakhshibekyan said that the Armenians did not want to leave anything behind for them.
“So they burn them [their houses], trees are cut down and people are taking everything away,” the 43-year-old said.
Clashes between the ex-Soviet rivals over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in late September, reigniting the long-simmering conflict over the mountainous region.
The ethnic Armenian enclave broke away from Baku’s control in the 1990s war and declared independence, although it remained internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The peace deal was reached after six weeks of heavy fighting that saw Azerbaijan’s military overwhelm Armenian separatist forces and threatening to advance on Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert.
Under the agreement, Armenia is losing control of seven regions seized during the post-Soviet war in the 1990s, which killed 30,000 people and displaced many Azerbaijanis that used to live there.
The separatists are retaining control over most of Karabakh’s Soviet-era territory and about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have deployed along front-line areas and to protect the Lachin corridor that connects Karabakh with Armenia.
Armenians leaving Kalbajar ahead of the handover said that they would not consider staying behind and living side-by-side with Azerbaijanis.
“Azerbaijanis and Armenians will never be able to live together,” 53-year-old builder Artur Kirakosyan said.
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