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Azerbaijani Forces Reclaim Second District From Armenians Under Nagorno-Karabakh Truce


An Azerbaijani military vehicle moves along a road in the Kalbacar region on November 25.

BAKU/YEREVAN -- Azerbaijani troops have moved into the Kalbacar district after it was handed over by Armenia as part of a deal that ended six weeks of fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry released pictures showing troops scanning for landmines on snow-covered roads as the second of three districts to be handed back under the Russian-brokered deal signed this month between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

No incidents were reported during the initial stage of the handover and a spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry said his country's peacekeeping mission remained in close contact with local administrations to try and prevent any possible incidents.

Kalbachar, wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was initially scheduled for handover on November 15 but the deadline was postponed by Azerbaijan for humanitarian reasons.

Azerbaijan lost control of Kalbacar during a war with Armenia in the early 1990s as they transitioned into independent countries amid the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Kalbacar -- which the Armenians call Karvachar -- was a strategic link between Armenia's internationally recognized border and Armenian-held areas in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

"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 ringing Nagorno-Karabakh -- Agdam, Kalbachar, and Lachin -- after nearly three decades under Armenian control as part of the Russian-brokered agreement signed two weeks ago, halting military action in and around Nagorno-Karabakh following the worst fighting in the region since the 1990s.

Agdam was ceded on November 20 and Lachin is to be handed over by December 1.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev vowed on November 25 to rebuild and revive the Kalbacar district, saying the government was committed to restoring the area.

Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan's troops and Azeri civilians were pushed out of the region in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.

The implementation of the truce deal was discussed during separate phone calls between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan's Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, the Kremlin said on November 24.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

The three leaders also discussed humanitarian assistance for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and economic issues, as well as the unblocking of transport communications in the region, the Kremlin said in a statement.

High-level Russian government delegations that included two deputy prime ministers, as well as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, visited Yerevan and Baku over the weekend.

"They looked into Russian peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region's activity and into further steps to provide humanitarian assistance to the population," the statement said.

The leaders also "touched upon issues of economic interaction and unblocking of transport links in the region," according to the statement. No further details were provided.

Putin also discussed Nagorno-Karabakh with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the phone on November 24, the Kremlin said.

"Vladimir Putin informed the Turkish leader about the activities of Russian peacekeepers [in Nagorno-Karabakh] who ensure the cease-fire and securing of the [civilian] population," it said in a statement.

"It was stressed that urgent humanitarian problems linked with the return of refugees, restoration of infrastructure, preservation of religious and cultural sites must be resolved without delay," it said, adding that the call was initiated by the Turkish side.

Erdogan said on November 25 he had discussed with Putin the possibility of expanding efforts to maintain the cease-fire to include other regional countries.

The two countries have agreed to set up a joint center in the region to monitor the truce and the Turkish parliament passed a troop deployment bill to send military observers.

Two of the most influential regional powers in the Caucasus, Russia and Turkey are said to disagree over the possible role of Turkish peacekeepers as part of the cease-fire.

Russia has extensive relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan but provides security guarantees to the former, while Turkey is a staunch Azerbaijani ally with longtime animosities with Yerevan.

In Paris, French senators on November 25 passed a resolution calling on the French government t to recognize the "Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh" as an independent state.

The resolution suggests that recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as a state could be used as "an instrument of negotiations for the purpose of establishing a lasting peace."

The draft document also states that "the security and freedom of the Armenian populations in Nagorno-Karabakh are not guaranteed by the Republic of Azerbaijan."

The resolution also calls Turkey's "expansionist policy" a "major factor of destabilization" in the South Caucasus and elsewhere, which it said represents "a threat" for the security of France and Europe.

In response, an aide to Azerbaijan's president dismissed the French resolution as a "provocative step," but one that was merely a "sheet of paper."

"Apart from gross violations of international law, the UN Charter, and the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council, this document adopted for the sake of narrow political ambitions raises serious questions about the intentions and the objective activity of France as a Minsk Group co-chair and permanent member of the UN Security Council," presidential aide Hikmat Haciyev said.

The resolution is not expected to be considered by the French government.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, TASS, Interfax, and AP