Villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh set their houses on fire on Saturday before fleeing to Armenia ahead of a weekend deadline that will see parts of the territory handed over to Azerbaijan as part of a peace agreement.
Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan that was controlled by Armenian separatists for decades began a mass exodus this week after it was announced Azerbaijan would regain control on Sunday.
Fighting between the separatists backed by Armenian troops and the Azerbaijan army erupted in late September and raged for six weeks.
Armenia announced on Saturday 2,317 servicemen were killed in the conflict, which forced thousands to flee their homes.
“To date, our forensic service has examined the corpses of 2,317 dead servicemen, including unidentified ones,” Armenian health ministry spokeswoman Alina Nikoghosyan wrote on Facebook, recording an increase of nearly 1,000 deaths compared with the last confirmed death toll among Armenian fighters.
‘Burn down their house’
In the village of Charektar – on the border with the neighbouring district of Martakert, which is to remain under Armenian control – at least six houses were on fire on Saturday morning with thick plumes of grey smoke rising over the valley.
“This is my house, I can’t leave it to the Turks,” as Azerbaijanis are often called by Armenians, said one resident as he threw burning wooden planks and rags soaked in gasoline into a completely empty house.
“Everybody is going to burn down their house today … We were given until midnight to leave,” he said.
On Friday, at least 10 houses were burned in and around Charektar.
The ex-Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after previous efforts by Russia, France, and the United States to get a ceasefire fell through.
A key part of the peace deal includes Armenia’s return of Kalbajar, as well as the Aghdam district by November 20 and the Lachin district by December 1, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.
Azerbaijan and Armenia on Saturday exchanged the bodies of soldiers who died in the clashes around the city of Susha in the Upper Karabakh region, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said.
“As part of this humanitarian action, the bodies of the dead servicemen of the Armenian armed forces were collected and handed over to the Armenian side,” a statement said. “Also, within the framework of this action, the bodies of six servicemen of the Azerbaijan army.”
Russian military officials said a mission consisting of nearly 2,000 troops would put in place 16 observation posts in mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor.
Russian military helicopters escorted a convoy of peacekeeping forces from the Erebuni military base in Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh on Saturday.
The peacekeepers travelled in a column that included armoured personnel carriers and other military vehicles.
Russian peacekeepers have established a total of 10 observation posts in Karabakh and have taken control of the Lachin corridor, which connects the mountainous region to Armenia.
Under the ceasefire agreement signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, the peacekeepers have been tasked with monitoring for truce violations, ensuring the safety of transportation and stopping any crimes against the civilian population.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked for decades in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where a separatist war was fought in the early 1990s until three years after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The region in the Caucasus Mountains of about 4,400 square kilometres (1,700 square miles) is 50km (30 miles) from the Armenian border.
It has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since the 1994 end of a full-scale separatist war that killed about 30,000 people and displaced an estimated one million.