Azerbaijan's Fizuli a ghost town after Karabakh battles

Fizuli (Azerbaijan) (AFP) –

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Under a light drizzle, Azerbaijani forces reclaim Fizuli three decades after they lost control of the town, finding homes left in ruins and overgrown with foliage.

Armenian fighters laid claim to the town and the district of the same name in a 1990s war that saw separatists declare independence over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and several surrounding districts.

The entire population of Fizuli -- 17,000 people -- fled the fighting that erupted following the collapse of the Soviet Union and ushered in a long-simmering dispute.

Clashes broke out again in full force late September and raged for six weeks, dealing a decisive victory to Azerbaijan who reclaimed between 15 and 20 percent of territory held by separatists.

The only traces of life today were left by recently departed fighters who gave up their positions as Azerbaijan's more technologically advanced army battled its way into the district during October.

A Russia-brokered peace agreement last week ended the fighting between separatists backed by Armenia and Azerbaijan's forces, but traces of the battle were omnipresent.

On roads leading from Fizuli tank tracks had left deep ruts in the ground.

- 'Crime against humanity' -

Near the abandoned village of Gorgan, AFP journalists saw trenches and ammunition boxes leftover from the fighting as well as a chapel where Armenian soldiers had prayed before forces of majority-Muslim Azerbaijan advanced.

In the ruins of the emptied-out hamlet of Garahanbeyli, an Azerbaijani flag was freshly hoisted on the roof of a house half destroyed by artillery fire.

During the trip organised by the Azerbaijani defence ministry, officials sought to underscore their version of the decades-long territorial dispute and the recent fighting that left thousands dead and displaced many more.

"Fizuli has been occupied by the Armenian armed forces for over 27 years. When you look at the devastation in this city, you once again understand the vandalism of its policies," proclaims Hikmet Hajiev, adviser to President Ilham Aliyev.

"It is barbarism, a crime against humanity, it is a testament to Armenian savagery," he said.

Under the terms of the Moscow-brokered peace accord, Armenia is scheduled to hand control of several other regions around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan over several weeks, including Aghdam, Kalbajar and Lachin.

Armenian residents in the regions have fled en masse, loading their life's belonging into trucks and cars under the watch of Russian peacekeepers.