On Sunday, Azerbaijan postponed its control over an area that was ceded by Armenian forces in the ceasefire agreement, but condemned civilians leaving the area to burn their homes and commit what it called “environmental terrorism.”
The ceasefire ended six weeks of violent fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the territories outside its official borders that had been under the control of Armenian forces since 1994. The agreement calls for Azerbaijan to control remote areas. . The first, Kilbajar, was scheduled to be delivered on Sunday.
But Azerbaijan agreed to postpone the acquisition until November 25, following a request from Armenia. Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmat Hajiyev said that the deteriorating weather conditions made the withdrawal of Armenian forces and civilians difficult along the only route through the mountainous lands linking Kilbajar with Armenia.
After the agreement was announced early Tuesday, many distraught residents preparing to evacuate their homes to render them unusable for the Azerbaijanis who would move there.
“Armenians harm the environment and civilian objects. Environmental damage and environmental terrorism must be prevented,” Hajiyev said.
Before the separatist war that ended in 1994, the residents of Kilbajar were almost exclusively Azerbaijani. But then the region came under Armenian control and the Armenians entered. And Azerbaijan considered their presence illegal.
Hajiyev said, “The concentration and settlement of the Armenian population in the occupied lands in Kilbajar area was illegal … All illegal settlements there must be evacuated.”
The impending renewal of Azerbaijani control has raised widespread concerns about the fate of Armenian cultural and religious sites, in particular Dadivank, the monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church dating back to the 9th century.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev assured Russian President Vladimir Putin, who negotiated a ceasefire and is sending around 2,000 peacekeepers, that Christian churches will be protected.
“The Christians of Azerbaijan will have access to these churches,” Aliyev’s office said in a statement on Sunday.
95% of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim, and Armenia is predominantly Christian. Azerbaijan accuses Armenians of desecrating Islamic sites during decades of their control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding lands, including housing cattle in mosques.
On Sunday, the Armenian Foreign Ministry condemned the vandalism of Gazanschotsut Cathedral in the Azerbaijani-controlled city of Shusha, describing it as “outrageous.” The Armenian Apostolic Church said earlier that vandals smeared the church walls after Azerbaijani forces captured the city.
Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan during the Soviet period. A movement to join Armenia arose in the late years of the Soviet Union and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a war broke out in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
Sporadic clashes erupted after the war ended in 1994 and international mediators sought unsuccessfully to resolve the conflict. Large-scale fighting broke out again on 27 September. Azerbaijan had made great progress and announced a week ago that it had captured the strategically important city of Shusha. The ceasefire agreement came two days later.
Armenia says 1,434 soldiers have been killed in the fighting this year, but civilian casualties are unclear. Azerbaijan has not announced its losses.
The ceasefire and territorial ceding agreement dealt a heavy blow to Armenia and sparked protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
On Saturday, Artur Vanitzian, the leader of the small center-right party who formerly headed the National Security Service, was arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Pashinyan. He was released on Sunday and it was not clear if the charges against him would remain.
The agreement also upset many Armenians who had hoped for Russian support in the conflict. Russia and Armenia are part of a defense alliance, and Russia has a large military base in Armenia.
“Our nation has lost everything, our heritage, everything. We have nothing left. I can’t say anything.” Sida Gabrielian said, crying at the burial ceremony of a Nagorno-Karabakh soldier on Sunday in Stepanakert, the provincial capital.
Aida Sultanova from London, Avit Demoryan from Yerevan, Armenia, and Costia Manenkov in Stepanakert contributed to this report.