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Karabakh Armenians announce end of breakaway republic

Russian peacekeepers stand at their checkpoint in the village of Chapar outside the town of Kalbajar on Nov. 14, 2020, during the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. (File photo by AFP)

Ethnic Armenian separatists in Karabakh agree to dissolve their government by the end of the year and become a full part of Azerbaijan.

The dramatic announcement by separatist leader Samvel Shakhramanyan on Thursday draws the curtain on one of the world's longest and seemingly most irreconcilable "frozen conflicts".  

"Dissolve all state institutions and organizations under their departmental subordination by January 1, 2024, and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases to exist," his decree said.

It said residents should "familiarize themselves with the conditions of reintegration" offered by Azerbaijan and make "an independent and individual decision" on whether to stay.

Armenia said more than 70,000 of the region's population had piled their belongings on top of their cars and left by Thursday. Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan said he expected the entire region to clear out "in the coming days".

The region has always been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan though it is populated by ethnic Armenians who seceded in 1992, sparking a war which left 30,000 people dead and forced Azerbaijanis to flee their homes.   

The rapid change of the situation began in the wake of an "anti-terrorist operation" by Azerbaijan targeting Armenian military positions in Karabakh after two mine explosions killed four soldiers and two civilians. 

Baku's 24-hour military blitz ended with a September 20 truce in which the rebels pledged to disarm and enter "reintegration" talks.

Two rounds of talks were held as Azerbaijani forces worked with Russian peacekeepers to collect separatist weapons and enter towns that had remained outside Baku's control since the the Caucasus neighbors first fought over the region in the 1990s.

Azerbaijan said Thursday it wanted ethnic Armenians to remain in Karabakh and "become part of Azerbaijan's multi-ethnic society" after Pashinyan accused Baku of engaging in "ethnic cleansing".

"Nikol Pashinyan knows perfectly well that Armenian residents are leaving Karabakh on their own volition," Azerbaijan's foreign ministry said. "This is their personal decision which has nothing to do with forced migration."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Armenians in Karabakh have nothing to fear. "It's difficult to say who is to blame (for the exodus), there is no direct reason for such actions," he said. 

Pashinyan had criticized the Russian peacekeeping force for failing to intervene when Azerbaijan launched its lightning offensive to regain control of the region. Russia denied the accusations. 

He also urged parliament to ratify Armenia's membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at a session scheduled to start Wednesday.

The ICC has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over his actions in Ukraine.

The Kremlin said it would treat Armenia's membership of the ICC as an "extremely hostile" act.

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