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Armenian opposition pushes PM to step down over peace deal

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Armenia's capital Wednesday to continue to pressure the ex-Soviet nation's prime minister to resign over a peace deal with neighboring Azerbaijan that domestic critics see as a betrayal of national interests.

The Russia-brokered agreement took effect on Nov. 10 and followed 44 days of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, during which the Azerbaijani army routed Armenian forces and wedged deep into the separatist territory.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Azerbaijani pay tribute standing in front of a bust of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's father and former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev as they celebrate the transfer of the Lachin region to Azerbaijan's control, as part of a peace deal that required Armenian forces to cede the Azerbaijani territories they held outside Nagorno-Karabakh, in Aghjabadi, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Azerbaijan on Tuesday completed reclaiming territory held by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century after a peace deal ended six weeks of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)

Some 4,000 protesters marched across downtown Yerevan Wednesday chanting “Nikol, you traitor!” and “Nikol, go away!” Police detained scores of demonstrators at a smaller protest on Tuesday, but didn't interfere with the larger rally.

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That conflict left not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself but large chunks of surrounding lands in Armenian hands.

The peace agreement Pashinyan signed saw the return to Azerbaijan of a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh. It also obliged Armenia to hand over all of the regions it held outside the separatist region. Azerbaijan completed reclaiming those territories on Tuesday when it took over the Lachin region located between the Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

In this photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian enters a hall for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Yerevan, Armenia, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the peace deal and to facilitate the return of refugees. The Russian troops will also ensure safe transit between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia across the Lachin region.

Speaking Wednesday during a video call with the leaders of nations that are part of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Armenia, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Pashinyan for his personal courage in making “painful but necessary decisions” to end the fighting.

Pashinyan, in his turn, thanked Putin for mediating the peace deal and hailed the Russian peacekeepers as “the guarantors of peace and security in the region."

A family drives a truck loaded with a small house along a highway as they leave their home village in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov. 18, 2020, before a cease-fire takes effect to halt weeks of fighting. Under the Russia-brokered agreement, Armenia will turn over control of some areas it holds outside the separatist territory's borders to Azerbaijan, and Armenians there will be forced to leave their homes. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)

Armenian opposition leaders hold Pashinyan responsible for failing to negotiate an earlier end to the hostilities at terms that could have been more beneficial for Armenia. However, Artur Vanetsyan, the former head of the National Security Service who leads the Homeland opposition party, has emphasized that the opposition wasn’t pushing for the annulment of the peace deal.

“The current authorities that have suffered a complete failure must step down immediately and allow other political forces to try to at least improve the situation,” Vanetsyan said. “Pashinyan’s resignation would offer a chance to save our dignity.”

The peace agreement has been celebrated as a triumph in Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev on Wednesday declared a new national holiday, dubbed Victory Day, to mark the day of the deal's signing.

Smoke and flame rise from a burning house in an area once occupied by Armenian forces but soon to be turned over to Azerbaijan, in Karvachar, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Nov. 13, 2020. (AP PhotoDmitry Lovetsky)

“The Azerbaijani people's will and determination, the country's economic power, the creation of a modern army and the national unity were the key factors behind our victory,” Aliyev said in his decree.

Armenia’s Health Ministry said Wednesday that at least 2,718 Armenian servicemen were killed in the 44 days of fighting. Azerbaijan’s government said 94 Azerbaijani civilians were killed and more than 400 were wounded but refused to reveal the nation’s military losses.

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.

The father of 7-year-old Aysu Isgandarova, who died during shelling by Armenian forces in the struggle over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, mourns during her funeral in Garayusifli, Azerbaijan, on Oct. 28, 2020. (AP PhotoAziz Karimov)

Azerbaijani soldiers with a national flag with the words "Lachin" celebrate the transfer of the Lachin region to Azerbaijan's control, as part of a peace deal that required Armenian forces to cede the Azerbaijani territories they held outside Nagorno-Karabakh, in Aghjabadi, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Azerbaijan has completed the return of territory ceded by Armenia under a Russia-brokered peace deal that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hailed the restoration of control over the Lachin region and other territories as a historic achievement. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)

An Azerbaijani man holds a national flag riding a horse as he celebrates the transfer of the Lachin region to Azerbaijan's control, as part of a peace deal that required Armenian forces to cede the Azerbaijani territories they held outside Nagorno-Karabakh, in Aghjabadi, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Azerbaijan has completed the return of territory ceded by Armenia under a Russia-brokered peace deal that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hailed the restoration of control over the Lachin region and other territories as a historic achievement. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)

A man with an Armenian national flag visits the 12th-13th century Orthodox Dadivank Monastery on the outskirts of Kalbajar, in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Nov. 13, 2020. Under an agreement ending weeks of intense fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, some Armenian-held territories, such as this area, will pass to Azerbaijan. (AP PhotoSergei Grits)