Azerbaijan holds first joint drills with Turkey since Karabakh victory

(Reuters) – Azerbaijan said on Monday it had begun a series of joint military exercises with close ally Turkey, the first since Baku retook the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh last month, prompting most of the territory’s ethnic Armenians to flee.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said in a statement that up to 3,000 military personnel were participating in exercises named for the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

It said the drills were being held across Azerbaijan, including in Baku, the Nakhichevan exclave which borders Turkey, and in what the ministry called the “liberated territories” of Karabakh.

Turkey has close linguistic and cultural links to Azerbaijan, and offered Baku military and political support during its three decade-long conflict with Armenia, with which Ankara has no formal diplomatic relations.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have recently signalled willingness to sign a peace treaty formally ending their conflict following Azerbaijan’s victory in Karabakh and the exodus of almost all the region’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

The foreign ministers of the two countries, along with those of Turkey, Iran and Russia, were due to hold talks hosted by Tehran on Monday on progress towards a peace agreement.

However, Baku this month accused Yerevan of undermining the peace process with “aggressive rhetoric”.

Armenia describes the Karabakh Armenians’ flight as ethnic cleansing driven by the threat of violence after a nine-month blockade of essential supplies, the latest chapter in a conflict between Christian Armenians and Turkic Muslim Azeris that goes back more than a century.

Azerbaijan says the Karabakh Armenian civilians were welcome to stay and be integrated in Azerbaijani society, but left voluntarily.

(Reporting by Felix Light; Editing by Gareth Jones)