Azerbaijani soldiers raised their flag for the first time in nearly 30 years, Tuesday, in the Lachin region, the third and last handover by Armenia near Nagorno Karabakh, under the ceasefire agreement that ended the six-week fighting.
Shortly after midnight, an Azerbaijani military convoy entered the region, which had been under the control of Armenian forces since a war in the 1990s, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
AFP journalists saw a group of about 10 soldiers taking part in a brief ceremony in the courtyard of an official building in the city, raising the Azerbaijani flag on it.
The Lachin region, as well as the Agdam region, which was surrendered on November 20, and Kalbjar, who was surrendered on the 25th, forms a buffer zone surrounding Karabakh, the republic declared unilaterally by the Armenian majority since the end of the first war in 1994.
Baku regained control of four other provinces that play the same role, during the six weeks of fierce battles that took place between the two camps since the end of September. All regions were outside the control of Azerbaijan since the end of the 1994 war.
The mountainous and now snow-covered Lachin region extends from north to south to Iran along the eastern border with Armenia and is known especially as the corridor of the same name.
Russian peacekeepers control this corridor and it is currently the only road linking Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia.
Residents did not wait long to leave the region, having destroyed homes and infrastructure on the lands they were leaving.
Some chose to stay the same as Levon Geforgoyan, a shopkeeper in Lachen’s main square.
“I have lived here for 22 years, I started from scratch, built everything,” the 48-year-old said, adding, “I hope I can continue, I still have a loan to pay off. If I leave I have to burn everything.”
Valera Livonian, a co-owner of a supermarket and a hotel, said she wanted to stay too, counting on the land corridor to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh.
“People can stop here, eat or drink tea or coffee. Not only Armenians but also Russians and foreigners,” she added.
On Tuesday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev welcomed a “new reality” in a televised speech addressed to the nation. “We expelled the enemy from our lands. We have restored territorial integrity. We have ended the occupation,” he said.
Aliyev noted that about 50,000 Azerbaijanis lived in the Lachin region before the 1990s war, announcing that they would return “in the near future.”
In Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, streets were crowded with people carrying flags to celebrate Lachin’s recovery, an AFP journalist said.
An analyst at the International Crisis Group, Olesya Vartanian, believes that the withdrawal from the recent region is evidence that the ceasefire agreement is “valid.” But she warns that the new situation remains “unclear”.
She explained to France Press that “the agreement that Moscow obtained is very precise regarding the restoration of lands, but it is ambiguous regarding a number of aspects, such as the mandate of Russian peacekeepers and the organization of the lives of the local population, Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis.”
Meanwhile, many Nagorno Karabakh residents who fled the recent fighting are now returning to the breakaway region.
The ceasefire agreement, signed on the ninth of November, at a time when the military situation was disastrous for Armenia, consecrates the victory of Azerbaijan and gives it great field gains, and allows for the preservation of the Nagorno Karabakh region despite the reduction of its area, and provides for the deployment of two thousand Russian soldiers to keep the peace.