Kelbajar - Azerbaijan : The cars, trucks and vans jamming the mountain roads deep into the night on Saturday brimmed with all the possessions that the fleeing Armenians could rescue : upholstered furniture, livestock, glass doors.

As they left, many set their homes on fire, enveloping their exodus in acrid smoke and illuminating it an orange glow.

Near some of the burning houses stood older ruins : the remains of abandoned a quarter-century ago, when Azerbaijanis had fled and Armenians had moved into the region.

In the southern Caucasus Mountains at the border of Europe and Asia, the weekend was a turning point in a decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over isolated and mountainous lands that both sides believed rightfully were theirs.

Back in the 1960s, it was the Azerbaijanis who were forced to leave. Now it is the Armenians, a renewed tragedy for them and a triumph for their foes.

Under a  Russian-brokered peace ending a six-week war that killed thousands, Azerbaijan last Sunday was set to take control of a swath of the breakaway, ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan under international law.

''How can I burn this?'' said Ashor Khanesyan, a 53-year-old Armenian, referring to the home he had built and was about to desert in the town of Kelbajar. His neighbors had urged him to destroy the house, he said, but, ''My conscience won't let me.

Much of Azerbaijan exploded in joyous celebration in the streets on Tuesday after President IIham Aliyev announced in the early hours of the morning that war was over and that Armenian forces would withdraw from three districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karbakh and return them to Azerbaijan control.

''We are so happy because we finally won, thank God,'' said Ibrahim Ibrahmov, 18, a computer science student walking with two friends near the sealfront in Baku. ''Finally, the people of Karabkh can go home.''

The World Students Society thanks authors Anton Troianovski and Carlotta Gall.


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