STEPANAKERT, AZERBAIJAN - Azerbaijan said Wednesday its forces had entered the second of three districts to be handed back by Armenia as part of a deal that ended weeks of fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The defense ministry in Baku said in a statement that "units of the Azerbaijani army entered the Kalbajar region on November 25" under the deal signed earlier this month by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.
Wedged between the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and the territory of Armenia, Kalbajar was initially scheduled for handover on November 15, but the deadline was postponed by Azerbaijan for humanitarian reasons.
"Engineering work has been completed to ensure the movement of our units in this direction, the difficult mountain roads along the route of the troops' movement are being cleared of mines and prepared for use," the ministry statement said.
Armenia agreed to hand over three districts around Karabakh - Aghdam, Kalbajar and Lachin - as part of the deal that stopped an Azerbaijani offensive that had reclaimed swathes of territory lost to Armenian separatists in a 1990s war.
Aghdam was ceded on November 20, and Lachin is to be handed over by December 1.
In the days before the handover, residents of Kalbajar packed all they could take, determined to leave nothing to their long-term foe.
AFP journalists saw locals collecting electric cables, loading parts of a hydroelectric power station into a truck and even cutting down trees to take with them as they left.
Azerbaijanis who fled the region nearly 30 years ago are expected to return, and local bricklayer Gagik Yakhshibekyan, 43, said the Armenians did not want to leave anything behind for them.
"So they burn [their houses], trees are cut down and people are taking everything away," Yakhshibekyan told AFP.
Clashes between the ex-Soviet rivals over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in late September, reigniting the long-simmering conflict over the mountainous region.
The ethnic Armenian enclave broke away from Baku's control in the 1990s war and declared independence, though it remained internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The peace deal was reached after six weeks of heavy fighting that saw Azerbaijan's military overwhelm Armenian separatist forces and threatening to advance on Karabakh's main city Stepanakert.
'Never able to live together'
Under the agreement, Armenia is losing control of seven regions seized during the post-Soviet war in the 1990s, which killed 30,000 people and displaced many Azerbaijanis that used to live there.
The separatists are retaining control over most of Karabakh's Soviet-era territory, and some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have deployed along frontline areas and to protect the strategic Lachin corridor that connects Karabakh with Armenia.
Armenians leaving Kalbajar ahead of the handover said they would not consider staying behind and living side-by-side with Azerbaijanis.
"Azerbaijanis and Armenians will never be able to live together," 53-year-old builder Artur Kirakosyan said.
In Dadivank, a town in the Kalbajar district, engineer Grigory Grigoryan said he was preparing to leave his home of 25 years, the place where his "children grew up and went to school".
The town is known to Armenians for its eponymous 12th-century monastery that will also be returned to Muslim-majority Azerbaijan as part of the handover.
In recent weeks worshippers flocked to the religious complex, expressing concern over the future of the heritage site despite assurances from Baku that it will preserve historical and spiritual places.
Other Armenians have meanwhile been returning to Karabakh itself.
Russia said Tuesday that it assisted the return from Armenia of more than 13,000 people who fled the fighting, which left thousands dead including more than 100 civilians.
Russia steals spotlight
Moscow's role in halting the fighting has stolen the spotlight from France and the United States, who together with Russia form the so-called Minsk group of negotiators that brokered an unstable cease-fire in the 1990s.
The three countries attempted three separate cease-fires during the recent fighting, each of which collapsed as Armenia and Azerbaijan accused the other of violations.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week raised questions over "ambiguities" in the new peace agreement, in particular questioning the role of Azerbaijan's ally Turkey in the truce.
Russia insists that Ankara will not be part of the peacekeeping mission despite claims of its involvement by Baku.
Since the peace deal was announced, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has faced a backlash at home, with protesters ransacking government buildings and demanding his resignation.