President Ilham Aliyev has addressed various topics concerning the outcomes of the decades-long Armenian occupation of the Azerbaijani lands and ongoing reconciliation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State of the Organization of Turkic States held in the Turkish capital Ankara on Thursday.
"During the 30 years of occupation, hundreds of our cities and villages, historical and religious sites and cemeteries were deliberately destroyed by Armenia," he said, adding 65 out of the 67 mosques in the Karabakh (Garabagh) and East Zangazur regions were destroyed by the Armenians, while the remaining two were used as pig and cow sheds.
Furthermore, he highlighted the plundering of natural resources and grave environmental damage caused by Armenians during the years of occupation of Azerbaijani lands.
Data compiled by the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan, based on statistics from the early 1990s, shows that there were approximately 2,625 monuments registered in those territories, of which 706 were under state protection. The occupation resulted in the destruction of hundreds of cultural institutions, including 927 libraries with 4.6 million books, 808 palaces of culture, clubs, and houses of culture, 85 music and art schools, 22 museums and museum branches with more than 100,000 exhibits, four art galleries, four theatres, two concert halls, and eight cultural and recreation parks. These institutions were either destroyed or looted during the occupation, causing irreparable damage to Azerbaijan's cultural heritage.
The Office of International Religious Freedom of the US State Department, in its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, confirmed that hundreds of sites, including most mosques, shrines, and cemeteries of ethnic Azerbaijani communities, were looted, vandalized, desecrated, and destroyed while under Armenian control.
“Because of the Armenian occupation, Azerbaijan is now among the countries most contaminated with landmines,” President Aliyev said, bringing to the attention one more humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Armenian occupation.
President Aliyev highlighted that even after more than two years since the liberation of Azerbaijani lands, the threat of mines still prevails in those territories. He added that since the end of the war in November 2020, nearly 300 Azerbaijanis have been killed or gravely injured in the aftermath of mine explosions.
From the early 1990s until 2020, the Karabakh (Garabagh) and East Zangazur regions of Azerbaijan were heavily mined by Armenian forces. As of early February 2023, about 64,000 hectares (158,000 acres) of the liberated territories of Azerbaijan have been cleared of mines since November 2020. During demining activities, more than 28,000 mines and over 39,000 unexploded ordnances have been detected.
Despite significant efforts, demining operations in Azerbaijan faced many challenges due to Armenia’s refusal to provide maps indicating the locations of landmines. Azerbaijan obtained minefield maps of the previously occupied Aghdam, Fuzuli, and Zangilan districts, which reportedly identify the coordinates of 189,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Additionally, Armenia provided mine maps of other liberated territories of Azerbaijan, but all these maps were found to be just 2 percent effective in mine action by ANAMA, the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action.
International experts have estimated that addressing demining issues in the liberated territories of Azerbaijan could take nearly 30 years and cost up to $25 billion.
In the meantime, President Aliyev said the peace process between the two countries is slowing down due to Armenia's failure of delivering on its legally binding commitments.
“Although Armenia recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in Prague and Sochi in 2022, it has not yet fully withdrawn its troops from the territory of Azerbaijan,” said the Azerbaijani president.
According to the tripartite statement signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia in November 2020, Armenia was obligated to withdraw its forces from the Karabakh region simultaneously with the deployment of the temporary Russian peacekeeping mission. However, Armenia has yet to fulfil this obligation. This issue is still pending due to the inaction of the peacekeepers.
According to official Azerbaijani data, there are approximately 10,000 illegal Armenian armed personnel in certain parts of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, temporarily monitored by the Russian peacekeeping contingent. Their presence is a flagrant violation of the tripartite statement signed in November 2020, and is also seen as a hindrance to normalization and peace-building efforts in the region.
Between March 9 and 15, there were at least four instances of illegal armed groups in the Karabakh region firing on positions of the Azerbaijani army. Additionally, on March 5, a violent incident occurred in the Shusha district when members of an armed gang attempted to smuggle weapons from Armenia into the Karabakh region, resulting in the deaths of three gang members and two Azerbaijani servicemen.
As an example of Armenia's next avoidance of addressing its obligations, President Aliyev noted the Zangazur corridor, the opening of which is hindered by the Armenian side.
"Therefore, Armenia flagrantly violates the Statement signed on November 10, 2020, and should be held accountable," Aliyev said.
The unblocking of regional communication links, including the opening of the Zangazur corridor, is a crucial aspect of the November 2020 tripartite statement. Azerbaijan is committed to completing its portion of the Zangazur multimodal transportation corridor by 2024.
The Zangazur corridor is anticipated to accelerate the increasing trade volumes between Europe and Asia, as it will reestablish the connection between Azerbaijan's mainland and its southwestern exclave of Nakhchivan, with a further link to the Turkish market. Many analysts view the corridor as a crucial component of the East-West and North-South transport routes, benefiting all neighbouring countries, and contributing to the overall Eurasian trade and transport communications, which include regional economies with a combined nominal GDP of $1.1 trillion.
Although the opening of the Zangazur corridor has significant potential, Armenia strongly opposes its launch. Additionally, the Armenian government has failed to take concrete action towards restoring their section of the corridor despite its commitments.