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Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan 

Yerevan, Armenia — Armenia has returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it seized decades ago, the countries confirmed Friday, a key step toward normalizing ties between the historic rivals.

The move, which has sparked protracted protests in Armenia, is an important move for reaching a comprehensive peace agreement after years of fruitless talks mediated by Russia and Western countries.

The Caucasus countries, both former Soviet republics, fought two wars in the 1990s and in 2020 for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan recaptured it last year in a lightning offensive, ending three decades of Armenian-separatist rule over the enclave and prompting more than 100,000 residents to flee into Armenia.

Yerevan’s disastrous defeat provoked a rift with its historic ally Russia, which Armenia accuses of failing to defend it in the face of Azerbaijani threats despite security treaty obligations.

After months of diplomatic tensions, Moscow said Friday that it had recalled its ambassador to Armenia for “consultations.”

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova did not provide a reason for the recall, which is typically seen in diplomatic circles as an extreme step in the face of worsening ties.

Armenia’s security service confirmed Friday that its border guards had taken up new positions in the east of the country, reflecting a recently brokered border demarcation deal that cedes the villages to Azerbaijani control.

Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev announced separately that his country’s border guards had taken control of the four settlements.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed in March to return the four abandoned villages, which were seized in the 1990s, as part of efforts to secure a lasting peace deal.

In a televised statement Friday evening, he said fixing the country’s volatile border with Azerbaijan “is a sole guarantee for the very existence of the Armenian republic within its internationally recognized and legitimate frontier.”

The two countries agreed earlier this month on the new demarcation of 12.7 kilometers of their border, returning the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli and Ghizilhajili to Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan has hailed the agreement as “very important” for Armenia’s sovereignty and said it “brings our security and stability to a new level.”

The territory ceded by Yerevan is of strategic importance for landlocked Armenia because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.

Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move could cut them off from the rest of the country, and they accuse Pashinyan of unilaterally giving away territory without getting anything in return.

Pashinyan has said Armenia will build new roads in the area over the next few months.

His decision has sparked weeks of anti-government protests in Armenia, with thousands of demonstrators led by the charismatic cleric Bagrat Galstanyan demanding Pashinyan’s resignation.

A new anti-government protest is scheduled for Sunday.

A 5.8-kilometer section of the border near the Armenian village of Kirants will be guarded “according to a transitional scheme until July 24,” Armenia’s national security service said Friday.

The village mayor has said locals will be allowed to use a section of the road that is to be transferred to Azerbaijani control, until new roads are built.

Local media reported that some Kirants residents had dismantled their houses and fled the village, which is located just meters from the redrawn border. 

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