Baku – Azerbaijan on Friday regained control of the Aghdam district, ceded by Armenian separatists in Nagorno Karabakh under a Russian-sponsored end-of-hostilities agreement that ended six weeks of war.
This is the first of three handovers to Azerbaijan of territory controlled by Armenian forces for almost 30 years and a war in the 1990s that left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, especially the Azerbaijani population of Aghdam.
“Congratulations to all the citizens of Aghdam. You are no longer refugees, you will return to your ancestral landsAzerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on television after his army entered the district.
“We liberated the region from Armenian fascism“, he proclaimed again, taking up the inflammatory rhetoric he is used to.
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This November 9 agreement, negotiated by Vladimir Putin, enshrines the Armenian defeat after six weeks of fighting that left thousands dead. The self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic survives, even though it loses many territories.
In addition to gains in Nagorno Karabakh itself, notably its second city Shusha, Baku takes over the seven Azerbaijani districts which constituted the security glacis of the separatists. Four were surrendered by arms, and three were or will be surrendered: Aghdam on Friday, Kalbajar on November 25 and Lachin on December 1.
Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are being deployed to ensure compliance by the belligerents with the ceasefire.
– Houses on fire –
In the hours preceding the handover of the district, houses continued to be set on fire by their inhabitants who preferred to know they had been reduced to ashes than inhabited by Azerbaijanis, AFP observed overnight from Thursday to Friday.
Packing their belongings into their vehicles, the last residents left the area less than an hour before the arrival of the Azerbaijani army.
An Armenian roadblock and a Russian army checkpoint have also been erected on the now deserted road linking Karabakh to Aghdam, according to an AFP journalist.
The Armenian soldiers had destroyed Thursday their headquarters in Aghdam, ghost town and in ruins for nearly 30 years where the separatists had a rear base.
In the district-owned village of Nor Maragha, AFP has seen people slaughter their cattle, harvest their fruits and move their homes over the past two days, feeling bitter that they have to leave farms and orchards to the hated enemy.
In Nor Karmiravan (Papravend for Azerbaijan), residents loaded furniture onto their trailers.
At the end of the war in the 1990s, the reverse exodus had taken place, with the entire Azerbaijani population fleeing these regions. Armenia then encouraged their repopulation by Armenians.
– What role for Turkey? –
The agreement to end hostilities is a humiliating defeat for Armenia. He is denounced by the opposition who accuses Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian of being a “traitor“and demands, so far unsuccessfully, his resignation. The authorities have denounced him a plot to assassinate the head of government.
The street demonstrations remained limited to a few thousand people.
The Azerbaijani president appeared to him this week, triumphant, in military fatigues and alongside his wife, the country’s vice-president, in certain emblematic places of reconquered territories.
The end of hostilities has been widely welcomed by the international community. France nevertheless called on Moscow to lift certain “ambiguities“of the text, especially on the role of Turkey, great support of Azerbaijan and sworn enemy of Armenia.
If Turkey is not mentioned in the agreement to end hostilities, Ankara has announced that Turkish military will take part in the ceasefire observation from a joint coordination center with Russia in Azerbaijan.
The Russian president, however, assured that no Turkish soldiers will be deployed in Nagorno Karabakh.
Finally, the agreement does not mention any resumption of negotiations on the status of the separatist region, an issue that has plagued relations in the South Caucasus for decades.