By Felix Light and Andrew Osborn
YEREVAN (Reuters) - Azerbaijan said on Wednesday it had halted military action in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh after its battlefield success forced Armenian separatist forces to agree to a ceasefire that will see the area fully return to Baku's control.
Under the agreement, outlined by Azerbaijan and the Russian Defence Ministry, which has peacekeepers on the ground, separatist forces are meant to disband and disarm, while talks on the future of ethnic Armenians who live there are due to start on Thursday.
In a speech to the nation on Wednesday evening, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Baku had restored its sovereignty "with an iron fist" in a 24-hour offensive by troops backed by artillery strikes that brought the breakaway region to heel.
He said Armenian forces had begun handing over their weapons and leaving, and that Karabakh's 120,000 Armenians would be able to take part in Azerbaijani elections, receive state education, and freely practice their Christianity in his Muslim-majority nation.
"We will turn Karabakh into paradise," said Aliyev, who said he was a man of his word.
Karabakh, a mountainous area in the volatile wider South Caucasus region, is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, but part of it has been run by separatist Armenian authorities since a war that ended in the early 1990s.
Armenians claim a long historical dominance in the area, which they call Artsakh. Azerbaijan links its historical identity to the territory too.
Fearful of what the future might hold, thousands of Armenians massed at the airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh known as Khankendi by Azeris. Others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers in the hope of being flown out.
As Karabakh has been the focus of two wars since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, many of its Armenians deeply distrust Azerbaijan. Neighbouring Armenia has accused Baku of trying to ethnically cleanse the territory, something Baku denies.
"They are basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan - this is basically a typical ethnical cleansing operation," Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in Karabakh's ethnic Armenian administration, told Reuters.
Another separatist Armenian official said at least 200 people had been killed in the fighting and more than 400 wounded. He said 10 of those killed were civilians, of whom five were children. Reuters could not verify his assertion.
ARMENIAN PM UNDER PRESSURE
The victory for Azerbaijan, whose forces far outnumbered the separatists and which is backed by Turkey, could cause political turmoil in neighbouring Armenia, where some political forces are angry that the government was unable to do more to protect the Karabakh Armenians.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is already facing calls from some opponents to resign and thousands of protesters gathered in the Armenian capital on Wednesday evening to demand that the government do more for the Karabakh Armenians.
Some of them yelled "Nikol is a traitor!".
Others are furious that Russia, which has peacekeepers on the ground and helped broker an earlier ceasefire deal in 2020 following a 44-day war, did not stop Azerbaijan.
The Kremlin rejected that criticism on Wednesday and President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that Russian peacekeepers, some of whom were killed on Wednesday when their car was shot at, would protect Karabakh's civilian population.
But Moscow has not criticised Baku. Describing a phone call between Putin and Pashinyan, the Kremlin said Putin "noted with satisfaction that it was possible to overcome the acute phase of the conflict, and welcomed the agreement ... on a complete cessation of hostilities and the holding of negotiations on Sept. 21".
Separatists running the self-styled "Republic of Artsakh" said they had been forced to agree to Azerbaijan's terms - relayed by Russian peacekeepers - after Baku's army broke through their lines and seized strategic locations.
Azerbaijan had said it could no longer tolerate a situation it regarded as a threat to its security and territorial sovereignty.
HANDOVER OF WEAPONS
Separatist fighters were expected to leave Karabakh for Armenia after handing over their tanks and artillery to Russian peacekeepers, though some of them figure on an Azerbaijani wanted list and are likely to be arrested.
Armenia, which says it has no forces in Karabakh despite Azerbaijani assertions, did not intervene militarily - something that Aliyev said he appreciated.
It was unclear how many ethnic Armenians would opt to stay in Karabakh.
Russia's defence ministry, which has thousands of peacekeepers on the ground, broadcast footage of Karabakh Armenians being given temporary shelter at a makeshift Russian military facility.
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannissyan told Reuters that Karabakh Armenians could "in an ideal world" live under Azerbaijani rule but that historical experience made it hard to imagine.
Azerbaijan's military operation had faced sharp criticism from the United States and some European countries.
They said the Karabakh problem should have been solved through talks and that Baku's actions were worsening an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground following a nine-month blockade of the area by Azerbaijan that caused acute shortages of food and other staples.
(Writing by Andrew Osborn in London and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Jon Boyle, Alex Richardson and Daniel Wallis)