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Azerbaijani leader hails handover of region ceded by Armenia

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Azerbaijanis wave national flags as they celebrate entry of troops in Nagorno-Karabakh's Aghdam region in Baku, Azerbaijan, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Units of the Azerbaijani army on Friday morning entered the Aghdam region, a territory ceded by Armenian forces in a cease-fire agreement that ended six weeks of heavy fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)
By DARIA LITVINOVA and JIM HEINTZ Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Azerbaijan’s president declared Friday that his forces have taken control of the Aghdam region, a territory ceded by Armenia in a cease-fire agreement that ended the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The truce, brokered by Russia last week, stipulated that Armenia hand over control of some areas its holds outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders to Azerbaijan. Aghdam is the first one to be turned over.

“Today, with a feeling of endless pride, I am informing my people about the liberation of Aghdam,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in an address to the nation. “Aghdam is ours!”

Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to celebrate the handover of the Aghdam region.

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 substantial surrounding territory in Armenian hands.

Heavy fighting that flared up Sept. 27 marked the biggest escalation of the decades-old conflict between the two ex-Soviet nations in over a quarter-century, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people.

The truce last week halted the violence after several failed attempts to establish a lasting cease-fire. It came two days after Azerbaijan, which had made significant advances, announced it had seized the strategically important city of Shusha.

Aliyev on Friday noted that Azerbaijan is taking over the Aghdam region “without a single shot (fired) or losses (suffered),” and called it a “great political success” that wouldn’t have been possible without military gains.

“Azerbaijan was able to achieve what it wanted on the political arena after having won a brilliant victory on the battlefield,” the president said.

The agreement, celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, has left many Armenians bitter. Mass protests erupted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, immediately after the peace deal was announced last week, and many ethnic Armenians have been leaving the territories that are to be handed over to Azerbaijan, setting their houses on fire in a bitter farewell gesture.

Although regaining the region is a triumph for Azerbaijan, the joy of returning is shot through with grief and anger. The region’s main city, Aghdam, was once home to 50,000, known for its white homes and an elaborate three-story teahouse, but it is so ruined that it’s sometimes called the “Hiroshima of the Caucasus.”

After the population was driven out in 1993 by fighting, they were followed by Armenian pillagers who stripped the city bare, seeking both booty and construction materials. One of the city’s happier eccentricities, the bread museum, is in ruins. The cognac factory is gone.

Today, the only structurally whole building is the mosque; from the top of the elaborately patterned minarets, the view is of a vast expanse of jagged concrete and houses reduced to shells, all encroached upon by a quarter-century’s growth of vegetation.
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Associated Press writer Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.