BAKU: Azerbaijan said on Friday its troops entered a district bordering Nagorno-Karabakh handed back by Armenian separatists as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal to end weeks of fighting in the region.

Troops moved into the district of Aghdam, one of three to be ceded, the Azerbaijan defence ministry said, a day after columns of Armenian soldiers and tanks rolled out of the territory.

Armenia will also hand over the Kalbajar district wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district by December 1.

Armenian residents of Aghdam hurriedly picked pomegranates from trees surrounding their homes and packed vans with furniture, before fleeing ahead of the official deadline to cede the mountainous province.

In the hours leading up to the handover, residents of the district set their homes on fire, leaving nothing behind for their longstanding rivals.

Fierce clashes between Azerbaijan’s 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.

The ex-Soviet adversaries finally agreed to end hostilities last week under the framework of a Russian-brokered accord that sees Moscow deploy peacekeepers to the region and requires Armenia to cede swathes of territory.

In a televised address on Friday Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said Armenians destroying property as they fled were a “wild enemy”.

“They are embarrassing themselves in front of the whole world,” he said.

On Thursday, residents celebrated in Baku, where drivers paraded cars through the city and waved flags of Azerbaijan ally Turkey and Russia.

Separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts captured the territory and claimed independence that has not been recognised internationally, even by Armenia, following a post-Soviet 1990s war that left some 30,000 dead.

As part of last week’s peace deal, Armenia agreed to return some 15 to 20 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory captured by Azerbaijan in recent fighting, including the historical town of Shusha. A Russian peacekeeping force of some 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 some 3,000 residents back to Stepanakert and other regions who had fled during the six weeks of heavy shelling.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that providing humanitarian aid to residents of “severely hit” Nagorno-Karabakh was now a priority, and called on the UN and the World Health Organisation to send delegations to the region.

He added that the peacekeepers had “helped end the bloodshed and prevent further casualties.” 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 some 130,000 people — mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis who were expelled from their homes.

In his national address on Friday, Aliyev promised Azerbaijanis that they would return to “ancestral lands” in Aghdam.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2020