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Azerbaijan takes over first district laid out in Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal

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A view of a vast expanse of jagged concrete and houses reduced to shells in Agdam, before Azerbaijani forces were handed control. Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.
A view of a vast expanse of jagged concrete and houses reduced to shells in Agdam, before Azerbaijani forces were handed control. Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Azerbaijan on Friday said it had taken control of the first of three districts Armenia agreed to cede as part of a Russian-backed peace deal to end hostilities over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

"Azerbaijani army units entered the Aghdam region on November 20," the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry said of the region, which has been controlled by Armenian separatists for nearly 30 years.

The November 9 agreement, agreed following negotiations hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, came after six weeks of fighting this autumn that resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.

Armenia agreed to return around 15 to 20 per cent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory captured by Azerbaijan in recent skirmishes as part of the peace deal, which included the historical town of Shusha/Shushi.

As well as gains in Nagorno Karabakh itself, Baku will take several areas outside the region held by Armenian forces.

After the district of Aghdam, the area of Kalbajar is set to be handed over on November 25 and another area, Lachin, on December 1.

Reports on Thursday said Russian soldiers had started what is set to become a 5-year-peacekeeping mission in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region — another point in the deal.

The exchange of territory was originally due to begin on Sunday but was delayed for humanitarian reasons.

Reports from the weekend suggested Armenian forces and ethnic Armenians in the district were packing up their things and leaving before the official deadline for Azerbaijan’s takeover.

News of the peace deal sparked protests in Armenia, with some demonstrators storming government buildings and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's residence.

Meanwhile, in Baku, there were scenes of celebration — the streets of the Azerbaijani capital were rammed with traffic and people danced on cars.

The former Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bloody war over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s.

Thousands were killed on both sides. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

The war ended with a truce in 1994, although there has been sporadic violence since.