Ethnic Armenian villagers in Nagorno-Karabakh set their houses on fire on Saturday before fleeing to Armenia on the eve of a deadline that will see parts of the territory handed over to Azerbaijan as part of a ceasefire agreement.
Residents of the Kalbajar district in Azerbaijan that was controlled by ethnic Armenians for decades began a mass exodus this week after it was announced Azerbaijan would regain control on Sunday.
“Children in Armenia are crying and want to return home, it is such a sorrow,” a tearful resident of Kalbajar told Al Jazeera.
Fighting between the Azerbaijani army and ethnic Armenian forces erupted in late September and raged for six weeks. The ex-Soviet rivals agreed to end hostilities earlier this week after major advances by Azerbaijan’s troops.
A key part of the Russia-brokered deal includes Armenia’s return of Kalbajar, as well as the Agdam district by November 20 and the Lachin district by December 1, which have been held by Armenians since a devastating war in the 1990s.
‘Great sense of loss’
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.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid reporting from Vardenis, Armenia, said power lines were also being cut.
“There is a great sense of loss amongst the few remaining. They are chopping wood and taking whatever they have left and join their families across the border in Armenia,” she added.
“They are desperately scared about what could happen next.”
Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, people expressed “disappointment” at the scenes of houses in flames in a land Azeris claim is theirs, Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from the capital, Baku, said.
“Azerbaijanis are saying according to the United Nations, this land belongs to them … there is a sense disappointment and anger in Azerbaijan about the scenes [burning homes] they are seeing,” he added.
“They are saying the Armenians are vandalising something which did not belong to them in the first place,” he added.
Armenia reports higher death toll
Azerbaijan and Armenia on Saturday exchanged the bodies of soldiers who died in the clashes around the city of Shusha, 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.”
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.
Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military casualties.
Under the ceasefire agreement signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, 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 the region and have taken control of the Lachin corridor, which connects the mountainous region to Armenia.
The peacekeepers have been tasked with monitoring for truce violations, ensuring the safety of transportation and stopping any crimes against the civilian population.