Hundreds more ethnic Armenian refugees have returned to Nagorno-Karabakh nearly one week after a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, on Sunday alone 475 of them arrived in Stepanakert from Yerevan in a convoy of 19 buses escorted by Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in the Karabakh conflict zone in line with the agreement.
Like other refuges, they were bused through one of the two main highways connecting Armenia to Karabakh. It passes through the Kelbajar district that has been Karabakh Armenian control since 1993.
Under the truce accord announced on November 10, Kelbajar was due to be placed back under Azerbaijani control by Monday. Baku said at the weekend that it has agreed to delay Armenian withdrawal from the mountainous district until November 25.
An RFE/RL correspondent witnessed on Monday numerous cars, buses and trucks moving along the Kelbajar road. They transported refugees and their possessions back to Karabakh.
There were also signs of a return to normality in Stepanakert and other Karabakh towns and villages severely damaged by Azerbaijani air strikes and shelling. The streets of Stepanakert were visibly filled with more people than during the six-week war.
After Kelbajar’s handover to Azerbaijan the other highway passing through the Lachin district will become Karabakh’s sole overland link with Armenia. Its sections close to the Karabakh town of Shushi (Shusha) were the scene of fierce fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the final days of the war.
The Russian peacekeepers are being deployed along the Lachin corridor and the current Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” in and around Karabakh. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday that they have started clearing the road from landmines and wreckage of military hardware destroyed during the fighting.
“The road is being prepared for the return of the refugees,” said Colonel Alexei Polyukhovich, the deputy commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent.
Armenian Prime Minster Nikol Pashinian predicted, meanwhile, that the Lachin road will likely be reopened to traffic “in the coming days.” Pashinian also said that more than a thousand Karabakh refugees have returned home in the last several days.
According to authorities in Stepanakert, the war displaced at least 90,000 Karabakh Armenian civilians making up around 60 percent of the territory’s population. Most of them took refuge in Armenia.