Azerbaijan's army enters the district of Aghdam, the first of three to be handed back by Armenia as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal to end fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan's president has declared that his forces have taken control of Aghdam region, a territory ceded by Armenia in a ceasefire agreement that ended the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The truce, brokered by Russia last week, stipulated that Armenia hand over control of some areas it holds outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders to Azerbaijan.
“Today, with a feeling of endless pride, I am informing my people about the liberation of Aghdam,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in an address to the nation. “Aghdam is ours!”
Aliyev noted on Friday that Azerbaijan is taking over the Aghdam region “without a single shot (fired) or losses (suffered),” and called it a “great political success" that wouldn't have been possible without military gains.
“Azerbaijan was able to achieve what it wanted on the political arena after having won a brilliant victory on the battlefield,” the president said.
Aghdam is one of three due to be handed back. Armenia will also hand over Kalbajar district wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district by December 1.
Armenian forces occupied some 77 percent of Aghdam in 1993, forcibly displacing nearly 200,000 Azerbaijanis from their homeland.
A new era begins for Agdam. Aghdam holds a special place in our future plans because it is a large district in terms of both territory and population. We will restore Aghdam as well. Government will extend assistance to ensure citizens’ return.— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) November 20, 2020
Armenian defence minister tenders resignation
Armenian Defence Minister Davit Tonoyan has tendered his resignation, the Aravot daily reported on Friday.
Tonoyan held the position since May 2018.
The government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has come under pressure to quit, with thousands of demonstrators demanding he go following the signing of a ceasefire that returned territories Azerbaijan retook during the six-week-long clashes.
A deadly conflict
Relations between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been tense since 1991, when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Upper Karabakh and seven adjacent regions. The post-Soviet 1990s war left some 30,000 dead. The Armenians' claim was never recognised internationally, not even by Armenia.
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 longstanding ex-Soviet rivals 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.
Baku retook several cities and nearly 300 settlements and villages from the Armenian occupation during the 2020 clashes.
On November 10, the two sides finally agreed to work toward a comprehensive resolution and end hostilities under the framework of a Russian-brokered accord that sees Moscow deploy peacekeepers to the region and requires Armenia to return swathes of occupied territory, including the historical town of Shusha.
The exchange of territory was originally due to begin on Sunday, with Armenians in the Kalbajar district fleeing en masse before the official deadline for Azerbaijan's takeover.
But Aliyev postponed the deadline by one week over "humanitarian" considerations.
Russia boasts return of refugees
In addition to Friday's deadline to cede Aghdam, Armenia will hand over the Kalbajar district wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia on November 25 and the Lachin district by December 1.
The 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.
Most of Azerbaijan's southwestern district of Aghdam had been under the control of Armenian separatists, following a post-Soviet 1990s war that left some 30,000 dead.
Before the post-Soviet war it was inhabited by some 130,000 people – mostly ethnic Azerbaijanis who were expelled from their homes.
After the peace accord was signed last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said total fatalities that include dozens of civilians had surpassed 4,000 people.
Russia's decisive role in the settlement has sidelined international players the United States and France, which brokered a ceasefire in the 1990s but failed to deliver a long-term resolution.
During the most recent conflict, France, the United States and Russia attempted to broker three separate ceasefires that collapsed as Armenia and Azerbaijan accused the other of violations.
Moscow co-chairs the Minsk group, which oversees the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, with Washington and Paris, but they were not involved in the deal signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to end six weeks of fighting over the enclave.
Since the ceasefire, Russia has held talks with Turkey, a key Azerbaijani ally and a harsh critic of the Minsk group, that could lead to Ankara deploying troops to the region.
France said on Thursday it wants international supervision to implement the ceasefire amid concerns in Paris that Russia and Turkey could strike a deal to cut out Western powers from future peace talks.
"The end of the fighting should now allow the resumption of good faith negotiations in order to protect the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and ensure the return of tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in recent weeks in good security conditions," President Emmanuel Macron's office said after calls with the Azerbaijani president and Armenian prime minister.
France's population includes between 400,000 to 600,000 people of Armenian origin.