Armenia yesterday was due to begin handing over disputed territory to Azerbaijan as part of a peace accord that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan that was controlled by Armenian separatists for decades began a mass exodus of the mountainous province in the days leading up to the official withdrawal day.
Journalists saw fleeing residents pile furniture and kitchenware into vehicles before leaving for Armenia and some among the departing ethnic Armenians said they had exhumed graves they feared would be desecrated by Azerbaijanis.
Thick plumes of smoke were rising over the valley near the village of Charektar after residents set their homes on fire preferring to leave devastation in their wake and homes that would be uninhabitable by Azerbaijanis.
“In the end, we will blow it up or set it on fire, in order not to leave anything to Muslims,” Garo Dadevusyan said of his house of 21 years.
He spoke while taking a rest from salvaging what he could from the home, including metal roof panels, and piling it onto an old flatbed truck.
The truck’s final destination was unclear.
“We are homeless now, do not know where to go and where to live. Do not know where to live. It is very hard,” Dadevusyan’s wife, Lusine, said, choked by tears the couple gave the interior of the house a last look.
A Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed last week to Nagorno-Karabakh. They set up checkpoints and positions in the region’s administrative center, Stepanakert, as part of the terms of the accord that sees Armenia cede swathes of territory that Azerbaijan’s forces gained in the fighting.
A key part of the peace deal includes Armenia’s return of Kalbajar, as well as the Aghdam district by Friday and the Lachin district by Dec. 1, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.
Armenia conceded on Saturday that 2,317 fighters were killed in clashes in which both sides accused the other of targeting civilian infrastructure.
Azerbaijan has not revealed its military casualties and the real toll after weeks of fighting is expected to be much higher.
Before departing en masse, Armenians flocked to the Armenian Apostolic Church monastery dating to the ninth century that is nestled in a gorge in Kalbajar for a final visit, as priests removed sacred items to be taken away.
Many of the visitors took photographs of themselves at the site nestled in the mountains near Kalbajar, suggesting they did not expect to see it again.
Kalbajar was almost exclusively populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis before they were expelled by Armenians in the 1990s war following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and a majority of the homes being abandoned previously belonged to Azerbaijanis.
The Armenian government controversially subsidized the region’s settlement by ethnic Armenians.
Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. It is unclear when any civilians might try to settle in Kalbajar — or elsewhere.
The former head of the Armenian National Security Service (NSS), Artur Vanetsyan, was arrested on Saturday on charges of plotting to kill Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and seize power.
The NSS said that Vanetsyan, the former head of the Republican Party parliamentary faction Vahram Baghdasaryan and war volunteer Ashot Minasyan were under arrest.
“The suspects were planning to illegally usurp power by murdering the prime minister and there were already potential candidates being discussed to replace him,” the NSS said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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