Azerbaijan’s president declared his forces have taken control of the Aghdam region – a territory ceded by Armenia in a ceasefire agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The truce, brokered by Russia last week, stipulated that Armenia hand over control of some areas its holds outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders to Azerbaijan. Aghdam is the first one to be turned over.
In an address to the nation, president Ilham Aliyev said: “Today, with a feeling of endless pride, I am informing my people about the liberation of Aghdam.
“Aghdam is ours!”
Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital Baku to celebrate the handover.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since 1994. Following the end of a separatist war there, Nagorno-Karabakh and substantial surrounding territory was left in Armenian hands.
Heavy fighting that flared up on September 27 marked the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict between the two nations in more than 25 years. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people were killed
The truce last week halted the violence after several failed attempts to establish a lasting ceasefire. It came two days after Azerbaijan, which had made significant advances, announced it had seized the strategically important city of Shusha.
Mr Aliyev said that Azerbaijan is taking over the Aghdam region “without a single shot (fired) or losses (suffered)”. He hailed 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.
The agreement, celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, has left many Armenians bitter. Mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital Yerevan immediately after the peace deal was announced last week.
Many ethnic Armenians have been leaving the territories that are to be handed over to Azerbaijan, setting their houses on fire in a bitter farewell gesture.
Although regaining the region is a triumph for Azerbaijan, the joy of returning is shot through with grief and anger. The region’s main city Aghdam was once home to 50,000, known for its white homes and an elaborate three-storey teahouse.
However, it is so ruined that it is sometimes called the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus”.
After the population was driven out in 1993 by fighting, they were followed by Armenian pillagers who stripped the city bare, seeking both booty and construction materials. One of the city’s happier eccentricities, the bread museum, is in ruins. The cognac factory is gone.
Today, the only structurally whole building is the mosque. From the top of the elaborately patterned minarets, the view is of a vast expanse of jagged concrete and houses reduced to shells, all encroached upon by a quarter-century’s growth of vegetation.