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Russian peacekeepers deploy to Nagorno-Karabakh after ceasefire deal

MOSCOW/YEREVAN/BAKU (Reuters) - Russian peacekeeping troops deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday under a deal that halted six weeks of fighting between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces, locking in place territorial gains by Azerbaijan.

The agreement was celebrated as a victory in Azerbaijan, while in Armenia it triggered unrest from crowds who stormed government buildings and branded the deal a betrayal.

It ends military action and restores relative calm to the breakaway territory, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and, until recently, fully controlled by ethnic Armenians.

Azerbaijan will keep territory it captured, including the mountain enclave’s second biggest city Shusha, which Armenians call Shushi. Ethnic Armenian forces must give up control of a slew of other areas by Dec. 1.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the deal, announced overnight and also signed by Moscow, should pave the way for a lasting political settlement to fighting that killed thousands, displaced many more and threatened to spark a wider war.

Azerbaijan had been trying to regain land lost during a war in the 1990s. Azeris celebrated in the capital, Baku, sounding car and bus horns in delight and cheering and waving the Azeri national flag.

“This (ceasefire) statement has historic significance. This statement constitutes Armenia’s capitulation. This statement puts an end to the years-long occupation,” Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan denied Armenia had suffered a defeat but acknowledged a “disaster” for which he took personal responsibility.

Unrest broke out in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, where crowds stormed and ransacked government buildings overnight, labelling the deal a betrayal. Some protesters urged Pashinyan to quit, a demand later echoed by 17 political parties, while a petition was started demanding the agreement be annulled.

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Despite the celebrations in Baku, some Azeris regretted Azerbaijan had stopped fighting before capturing all of Nagorno-Karabakh, and were wary about the arrival of peacekeepers from Russia, which dominated the region in Soviet times.

“We were about to gain the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh back,” said 52-year-old Kiamala Aliyeva. “The agreement is very vague. I don’t trust Armenia and I don’t trust Russia even more.”

NO OPTION

Since the fighting flared on Sept. 27, Azerbaijan says it retook much of the land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had lost in a 1991-94 war in which about 30,000 people were killed.

The capture of Shusha, or Shushi, appears to have been a turning point. Perched on a mountain top above Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s biggest city, it gave Azerbaijan’s forces a commanding position from which to launch an assault.

Three previous ceasefires had failed and Nagorno-Karabakh leader Arayik Harutyunyan said there had been no option but to conclude a peace deal because of the risk of losing the whole enclave to Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan said he had concluded the peace deal under pressure from his own army.

“I personally bear responsibility for this,” he later said on Facebook. “This is a big failure and disaster and mourning for lost lives.”

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Arms supplies and diplomatic support from Turkey, a close ally, helped give Azerbaijan the upper hand in the conflict, and Ankara used it to show its growing international clout, often putting it at odds with its NATO allies and Moscow.

For Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia and a military base there, the deal is a sign it is still the main arbiter in the energy-producing South Caucasus, which it sees as its own backyard.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan hailed the deal in a phone call to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The Turkish presidency said Erdogan told Putin Turkey would set up a centre to observe the ceasefire along with Russia, in a location “in the lands liberated from Armenian occupation”.

The Kremlin said the two leaders had stressed the importance of close cooperation to ensure the agreement was implemented.

A statement released by France, which with Russia and the United States has long mediated in the conflict, hinted at lingering tensions with Ankara over the bloodshed.

President Emmanuel Macron’s office said any lasting agreement must take into account Armenia’s interests, and urged Turkey to end “provocations”.

NO AGREEMENT ON TURKISH PEACEKEEPERS

Under the ceasefire deal, Azerbaijan will gain a road link to an Azeri exclave on the Iranian-Turkish border, giving Turkey a land bridge to Azerbaijan.

Putin said displaced people would be able to return to Nagorno-Karabakh and prisoners of war and bodies of those killed would be exchanged. All economic and transport links in the area would be reopened.

Russian peacekeepers will remain for at least five years, expanding Moscow’s military footprint in the region. Putin said they would be deployed along the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh and in a corridor between the region and Armenia.

Almost 2,000 servicemen, 90 armoured personnel carriers, and 380 vehicles and pieces of other hardware were being deployed, the Russian defence ministry said.

Russian media said 20 military planes had taken off for the region and had started arriving in Armenia en route to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there had been no agreement on deploying any Turkish peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Turkish military would help staff a joint monitoring centre with Russian forces.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Vladimir Soldatkin and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow, John Irish and Elisabeth Pineau in Paris, Tuvvan Gumruku in Ankara and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff

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