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Armenia begins handover of Azerbaijani lands under Karabakh peace deal

A house is seen set on fire by departing ethnic Armenians, in the village of Cherektar in Kalbajar, November 14, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

Armenia is expected to begin giving back Azerbaijani lands it held for about 30 years, as part of a Russian-brokered ceasefire that puts an end to six weeks of fierce fighting.

Under the deal, Armenia should return Kalbajar on Sunday, as well as Aghdam to Azerbaijan by November 20 and the Lachin district by December 1. Azerbaijani forces have already retaken Fuzuli, Jebrayil, Zengilan, Qubadli and Shusha as well as villages that add up to 300 settlements in total, according to the government.  

On Sunday, the Armenians who had settled in the Kalbajar district after a  war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s began a mass exodus from the mountainous province.

Many villagers set their houses on fire before leaving the territory for Armenia. They said that they preferred to leave devastation in their wake and homes that would be uninhabitable by Azerbaijanis.

Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it has been held by ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Armenia since 1992, when they broke from Azerbaijan in a war that killed some 30,000 people.

The conflict re-erupted in late September, becoming the worst fighting in the region in decades.

After weeks of fighting in and around Karabakh, the separatist junta government of the region finally acknowledged last week that it had lost control of the mountain enclave’s second-largest city of Shusha and that Azerbaijani forces were closing in on the main city of Khankendi, which Armenians call Stepanakert after a Bolshevik militant in the late 19th century.

Armenia and Azerbaijan eventually agreed to end hostilities earlier this week, under the deal that secured territorial advances for Azerbaijan in Karabakh and seven surrounding districts.  

In the meantime, Russia has deployed a peacekeeping contingent to Nagorno-Karabakh, to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire deal.

Moscow announced on Sunday that two Antonov An-124 Ruslan military transport aircraft carrying Russian peacekeepers and equipment had arrived in Yerevan.

“The aircraft delivered 10 BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, logistics equipment, as well as about 30 military personnel from peacekeeping units,” the military said in a statement.

Russia urges Azerbaijan to protect  Christian shrines in Karabakh

President Vladimir Putin on Saturday called on Azerbaijan to protect Christian shrines in the lands that are being given back to Baku.

Putin “underscored the importance of securing safety and normal church life of these shrines” in a phone call with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev on Saturday, the Kremlin said.

Aliyev said that was how Azerbaijan, the Muslim nation, will act, according to the Kremlin.

Azerbaijan says almost all mosques and other Azerbaijani landmarks have been destroyed by Armenian forces during about 28 years of occupation.  

In another development on Sunday, Azerbaijan dismissed as groundless reports that it had recalled its ambassador to Russia, Polad Bulbuloglu.

The Foreign Ministry said the reports “are contrary to facts,” and that “appointment and recall of country’s ambassadors in foreign states is the prerogative of the President of Azerbaijan.”

The reports came after the ambassador made remarks earlier this week about the downing of a Russian helicopter by Azerbaijan in Armenia, saying that "anything can happen.”

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