YEREVAN: Armenia has returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it seized decades ago, the countries confirmed on Friday, a key step toward normalising ties between the historic rivals.

The move, which has sparked protracted protests in Armenia, is an important step towards reaching a comprehensive peace agreement after years of fruitless talks mediated by Russia and Western countries.

The Caucasus countries, both former Soviet republics, fought two wars in the 1990s and in 2020 for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan recaptured it last year in a lightning offensive, ending three decades of Armenian separatist rule over the enclave and prompting more than 100,000 residents to flee into Armenia.

Yerevan’s disastrous defeat provoked a rift with its historic ally Moscow, which Armenia accuses of failing to defend it despite security treaty obligations.

After months of diplomatic tensions, Moscow said on Friday that it had recalled its ambassador for “consultations”.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova did not provide a reason for the recall, which is typically seen in diplomatic circles as an extreme step in the face of worsening ties.

Armenia’s security service confirmed that its border guards had taken up new positions in the east of the country, reflecting a recently brokered border demarcation deal that cedes the villages to Azerbaijani control.

Azerbaijan’s deputy prime minister, Shahin Musta­fayev, announced separately that his country’s border guards had taken over control of the four settlements.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed in March to return the four abandoned villages, which were seized in the 1990s, as part of efforts to secure a lasting peace deal.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2024

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