Aliyev says Azerbaijan to start resettling capital of Karabakh region in September

FILE PHOTO: Stepanakert city following mass exodus of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh

BAKU (Reuters) - Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said that from September Baku will begin to resettle the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose majority ethnically Armenian population fled after Azeri forces took full control of the former breakaway region last year.

The mountainous region, whose capital Khankendi is known in Armenia as Stepanakert, was captured by Azeri forces in September 2023 in a lightning offensive, sparking the departure of at least 100,000 ethnic Armenians living there.

Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing - a charge denied by Baku, which has said the enclave's ethnic Armenians were welcome to remain in the territory.

Karabakh Armenians say they left en masse because they do not feel safe in Azerbaijan.

Aliyev, in power since 2003 and re-elected this year in a vote criticised by Western observers, was quoted on Wednesday speaking about Khankendi by Azerbaijan's national press agency while meeting residents in Khojaly, a town in Nagorno-Karabakh retaken by Baku in 2023.

In response to a resident who told Aliyev that he wanted to visit Khankendi, where the man said he had once been held captive, the Azeri leader replied: "Go and see these places. Because resettlement in Khankendi will begin in September".

"The first to move will be students and their teachers," Aliyev said, according to a transcript of the conversation published late on Tuesday. "Karabakh University will begin its activities."


Aliyev added that resettlement will also begin in September in the ghost town of Agdam, home to a joint Russian-Turkish ceasefire monitoring centre which shuttered last month amid a withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the region.

Khankendi was nearly emptied by war. Only a few hundred people remained a month after the civilian exodus, an International Committee of the Red Cross official said.

Hospitals had ceased functioning and water board authorities fled. The director of the morgue was gone too, and the deserted streets of the city once home to as many as 75,000 people presented a "surreal" picture, the official said last October.

In March, Azerbaijani state television broadcast footage showing mechanical diggers destroying the building in Khankendi that once housed the breakaway ethnic Armenian parliament.

Sources told Reuters last year that retaking the region was a personal crusade for Aliyev, whose father, the then President Heydar Aliyev, had suffered an ignominious defeat there during a previous 1988-1994 war. The younger Aliyev succeeded his father upon his death in 2003.

Peace talks between Baku and Yerevan are ongoing. Meanwhile, Armenia has handed back four uninhabited border villages to Azerbaijan, sparking mass protests in the streets of Yerevan this month and calls for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign.

(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Lucy Papachristou; Editing by David Holmes)