Azerbaijan extends deadline on Armenian withdrawal in Kalbajar

Residents piled possessions onto vehicles and torched their homes before handing over the territory

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Azerbaijan on Sunday agreed to extend the deadline for Armenians to withdraw from the Kalbajar district as residents of the area began a mass withdrawal of the mountainous province as part of a Russian-brokered peace accord to end weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Azerbaijan agreed to prolong the deadline for the withdrawal from Kalbajar of Armenian armed forces and of illegal Armenian settlers until November 25," President Ilham Aliyev's foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, said.

Armenia was due to begin handing over the disputed territory to Azerbaijan on Sunday.

Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan, which has been controlled by Armenian separatists for decades, piled furniture and kitchenware into vehicles before leaving for Armenia and some among the departing ethnic-Armenians said they had exhumed graves they feared would be desecrated by Azerbaijanis.

Thick plumes of smoke were rising over the valley near the village of Charektar after residents set their homes on fire preferring to leave devastation in their wake and homes that would be uninhabitable by Azerbaijanis.

The president of Azerbaijan is promising that Christian churches will be protected when the Muslim country takes possession of areas formerly controlled by Armenians.

Kalbajar is home to the well-known Dadivank monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church. A day before the territory’s planned handover, workers removed many of the monastery’s sacred objects.

President Ilham Aliyev’s office said he made the promise in a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who deployed peacekeeping forces in the areas this week.

Moscow's peacekeeping mission, which the military said included soldiers that previously were stationed in Syria, comprises some 2,000 troops for a renewable five-year mission.

The ex-Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after efforts by Russia, France and the US to get a ceasefire fell through during the nearly two months of clashes.

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.

Kalbajar was almost exclusively populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis before they were expelled by Armenians in the 1990s war following the break up of the Soviet Union, and a majority of the homes being abandoned previously belonged to Azerbaijanis.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of combatants and civilians have been killed since fighting flared anew in late September.