BAKU, Sept 21, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Azerbaijan said Wednesday it had regained control over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh for the first time in decades, after Armenian separatists agreed to lay down their arms in the face of a military operation that they said killed 200 people.
The stunning collapse of separatist resistance represents a major victory for Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in his quest to bring the Armenian-majority region back under Baku's control.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over the mountainous region.
The years of conflict have been marked by abuses on both sides, and there are concerns of a fresh refugee crisis as Karabakh's Armenian population fears being forced out.
A day after Azerbaijan launched its military operation, Baku and the ethnic Armenian authorities in Karabakh announced a ceasefire had been brokered by Russian peacekeepers.
"Azerbaijan restored its sovereignty as a result of successful anti-terrorist measures in Karabakh," Aliyev said in a televised address.
He claimed that most of the Armenian forces in the region had been destroyed and said the withdrawal of separatist troops had already begun.
The attack left "at least 200 killed and more than 400 wounded", Nagorno-Karabakh separatist official Gegham Stepanyan said.
Late on Wednesday, Armenia's defence ministry said Azerbaijan had fired on its positions along the border between the arch-foes. Such frontier skirmishes are frequent.
- Truce deal -
Under the truce, the separatists said they had agreed to fully dismantle their army and that Armenia would pull out any forces it had in the region.
Azerbaijan's defence ministry said "all weapons and heavy armaments are to be surrendered" under the supervision of Russia's 2,000-strong peacekeeping force on the ground.
Both sides said talks on reintegrating the breakaway territory into the rest of Azerbaijan would be held on Thursday in the city of Yevlakh.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow's peacekeepers would mediate the talks.
Moscow -- the traditonal regional power broker -- has said several members of its force in Karabakh were killed when their car came under fire.
Baku's operation was the latest violent confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh.
After the Soviet Union fell apart, Armenian separatists seized the region -- internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan -- in the early 1990s.
That sparked a war that left 30,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.
In a six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured swathes of territory in and around the region.
President Aliyev said this week's events "will have a positive impact on the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia".
His foreign policy advisor Hikmet Hajiyev promised safe passage for the separatists who surrendered and said Baku sought the "peaceful reintegration" of Karabakh Armenians.
A separatist official said more than 10,000 people had been evacuated from Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Putin said he hoped for a "peaceful" resolution, adding that Moscow had been in contact with all sides in the conflict.
The Russian leader held talks with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan Wednesday evening, but the Kremlin insisted the crisis was "Azerbaijan's internal affair".
- 'War is over' -
Jubilant residents in Azerbaijan's capital expressed hope the deal heralded a definitive victory and the end of the decades-long conflict.
"I was very happy with this news. Finally, the war is over," 67-year-old pensioner Rana Ahmedova told AFP.
In Armenia, there was fury at a second defeat in Karabakh in three years.
Clashes broke out in the capital Yerevan, where thousands of protesters waving the separatist region's flag blocked a main road and riot police guarded official buildings.
Demonstrators threw bottles and stones at police as they slammed the government's handling of the crisis. Officers used stun grenades and made arrests.
The loss in Karabakh ratchets up domestic pressure on Pashinyan, who has faced stinging criticism at home for making concessions to Azerbaijan since 2020.
"We are losing our homeland, we are losing our people," said Sargis Hayats, a 20-year-old musician.
Pashinyan "must leave, time has shown that he cannot rule. No one gave him a mandate for Karabakh to capitulate," he said.
The Armenian leader has insisted that his government had not been involved in drafting the latest ceasefire deal.
Again denying his country's army was in the enclave, he said he expected Russia's peacekeepers to ensure Karabakh's ethnic-Armenian residents could stay "in their homes, on their land".
- International pressure -
Turkey, a historic ally of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan that views mostly Christian Armenia as one of its main regional rivals, had called the operation "justified".
The EU and United States had been mediating talks between Baku and Yerevan in recent months aimed at securing a lasting peace deal between the two foes.
The White House said Wednesday it was concerned by the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, while French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna warned of a risk of the crisis escalating into an all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"As for the possibility that Armenia may, in spite of itself, find itself involved... I think we need to remind the international community to be highly vigilant."