MOSCOW (AP) — The president of Azerbaijan is promising that Christian churches will be protected when the strongly Muslim country takes possession of areas formerly controlled by Armenians, as residents burned down their homes and fled in cars and trucks ahead of Sunday's expected takeover.
President Ilham Aliyev's office said he made the promise in a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is deploying peacekeeping forces in the areas under an agreement that ended six weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Ethnic Armenian forces had controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and sizeable adjacent territories since 1994, after the end of a separatist war. Fighting resumed in late September and ended with an agreement that calls for Azerbaijan to regain control of the outlying territories as well as allowing it to keep parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that it seized during the recent fighting.
The first of the territories, Kalbajar, was to be turned over on Sunday. But Azerbaijan agreed at the last minute to give Armenian forces and civilians until Nov. 25 to withdraw.
Kalbajar is home to the well-known Dadivank monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church. On Saturday, a day before the territory's expected handover, workers removed many of the monastery's sacred objects.
Azerbaijani presidential spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev said Sunday that the delay was requested by Armenia and granted "taking into account the worsening weather conditions and the difficult mountainous terrain."
Civilians fleeing the region caused huge traffic jams on the single road leading to Armenia.
Ethnic Armenian Garo Dadevusyan wrenched off his home's metal roof in Kalbajar in the last few days, trying to figure out how to destroy it.
"In the end, we will blow it up or set it on fire, in order not to leave anything to Muslims," Dadevusyan said. He piled the roof and family goods onto an old flatbed truck but their final destination was unclear.
"We are homeless now. We do not know where to go and where to live ... It is very hard," his wife, Lusine, said, choking back tears as the couple gave their house a final look.
Azerbaijan is about 95% Muslim and Armenians fear that churches would be damaged or closed when it takes control of the territories.
"President Aliyev said that Christian churches in Azerbaijani territories, which are returned to Azerbaijan in accordance with the trilateral statement, will also be properly protected by the state. Christians of Azerbaijan will have access to these churches," said the statement from his office.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of combatants and civilians have been killed since fighting flared anew in late September.