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Azerbaijani Troops Enter Disputed Territory Handed Over By Armenia

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A mosque is seen through ruins in Aghdam on Thursday, just before the formal entry of Azerbaijani forces. As part of a recent peace agreement, Armenia ceded control of several regions in and around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Sergei Grits, AP

A mosque is seen through ruins in Aghdam on Thursday, just before the formal entry of Azerbaijani forces. As part of a recent peace agreement, Armenia ceded control of several regions in and around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azerbaijani military has entered Aghdam, the first of a cluster of districts around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh to be ceded to the country in its recent cease-fire with Armenia. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced the troops' entry in a celebratory address to the country Friday.

"These days we write the new, glorious history of our people and our country. This is a historic victory," Aliyev said in a series of English-language statements posted to Twitter. "From now on, we will move down the development path much faster."

Azerbaijan's ministry of defense confirmed that "units of the Azerbaijan Army" had crossed into Aghdam on Friday under the terms of a peace deal brokered by Russia.

The agreement, signed by Azerbaijan and Armenia after more than six weeks of renewed bloodshed — and several failed truces — stipulates that Armenia hand over three disputed districts: Aghdam, Lachin and Kelbajar. Azerbaijani forces are expected to enter the others within two weeks.

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The moment Friday marked a milestone in a conflict that dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when separatists took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic-Armenian province within Azerbaijan. The fighting, which largely ended in 1994, killed some 30,000 people and displaced 100,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from the region. Anti-Armenian riots in the Azeribaijan capital Baku drove thousands from that city as well.

A stalemate has prevailed since 1994, with the mountainous territory under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Armenia, while still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

With the encouragement of Turkey, which shares linguistic and historical ties with Azerbaijan, Baku launched an attempt to regain the territory in late September. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, though Azerbaijan has not release its casualty figures. International actors scrambled to try to contain the bloodshed with diplomacy — including the U.S., which brokered a cease-fire hailed by President Trump, though it quickly faltered last month.

It was Russia that finally succeeded in negotiating the latest truce, which cemented significant territorial gains made by Azerbaijan in recent weeks. In his statement Friday, the Azerbaijani president lauded the agreement as a "tremendous political success."

Such hopeful sentiment was evident in Baku, where crowds of demonstrators bearing national flags gathered in the streets to celebrate the return of the territory.

But the jubilation was not shared in Armenia, where thousands of protesters last week expressed their anger and frustration with the terms of the cease-fire.

Nor was it to be found among the ethnic Armenian residents of Aghdam, many of whom reportedly fled their homes in anticipation of the Azerbaijani military's arrival.

"We wanted to build a sauna, kitchen. But now I had to dismantle everything," one resident told Agence France-Presse before abandoning his home. "And I'll burn down the house with everything I own when I leave."

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