BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Azerbaijan on Tuesday completed reclaiming territory ceded by Armenia under a Russia-brokered peace deal that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hailed the restoration of control over the areas as a “historic victory.”
“We all lived with one dream and now we fulfilled it,” Aliyev said in an address to the nation. “We won a victory on the battlefield and on the political arena, and that victory opens a new era for our country. It will be an era of development, security and progress.”
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but large chunks of surrounding lands in Armenian hands.
In 44 days of heavy fighting that began on Sept. 27, the Azerbaijani military routed Armenian forces and wedged deep into Nagorno-Karabakh, forcing Armenia to accept a Russia-brokered peace deal that took effect Nov. 10. The agreement saw the return of a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control and also requested Armenia to hand over all of the regions it held outside the separatist region.
The Lachin region, which lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was the last of the three areas on the rim of Nagorno-Karabakh to be surrendered by Armenian forces on Tuesday.
Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the peace deal and help the return of refugees. The Russian troops will also ensure safe transit between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia across the Lachin region.
“We have restored historic justice,” Aliyev said. “The Azerbaijani people will do everything to rebuild the ruined cities and villages. From now on, we will live as a great and proud people.”
Aliyev said 94 Azerbaijani civilians were killed and more than 400 were wounded in the latest fighting, but he again refrained from revealing his country’s military losses.
Armenian authorities said that more than 1,700 Armenian soldiers have been killed.
Turkey, which has strongly backed its ally Azerbaijan, has extended its clout in the region. On Tuesday, Russian and Turkish military officials signed documents to set up a joint monitoring center to ensure the fulfillment of the peace deal.
The peace agreement was celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, but sparked mass protests in Armenia, with thousands taking to the streets to demand the ouster of the country’s prime minister.
After the hostilities ended, Russian peacekeepers have assisted the return of refugees who fled the latest fighting. The Russian military said that over 25,000 people have returned to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia.
As Armenian forces ceded control of the Aghdam and the Kalbajar regions after the peace deal, some Azerbaijani residents who fled them more than a quarter-century ago also started trickling back to the territories.
Gurban Hasanov, 56, who was forced to flee Lachin 26 years ago with his family, said he’s longing to come back.
“I and all my family dream to return to our native village,” he told The Associated Press. “I lack words to explain how badly we want to come back. I’m a teacher, and I want to teach children geography.”
Hasanov said he recently saw his village on video with his house intact — one of just a dozen that have survived.
Before the territories’ handover, some ethnic Armenians set houses on fire in a bitter farewell — a gesture that insulted Azerbaijanis.
“I hope the Armenians didn’t burn it as they did in the Kalbajar region,” he said.