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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Town at Aching Heart of War

LACHIN, Azerbaijan -- The desolate town of Lachin, with most of its houses destroyed, does not look much of a place to die for.

But Lachin, once part of Azerbaijan and now controlled by Armenians, lies at the heart of the bitter dispute over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh in which some 15,000 people have died in more than six years of war.

What is left of Lachin sits astride the only road linking Armenia proper to the mountainous Karabakh region.

Azerbaijan has said it wants the town, which used to be populated mainly by Azeris and Kurds, back if the Karabakh dispute is to be settled.

Nagorny Karabakh, where the Armenians are in the majority, was allotted to Azerbaijan by the Kremlin in 1923. It declared independence in 1988. A cease-fire was agreed to in May 1994 and permanent-peace talks are held regularly.

Karabakh officials say the return of Lachin is one of the Azeris' key demands in the talks.

But to the Karabakh Armenians in their mountainous land, Lachin controls a vital supply route. Handing it back would be to feel their enemy's hand on their jugular, they say.

"If this place was under the control of Azerbaijan, in three to four years, not one single Armenian would live here," Sarkis Hagopyan, first deputy chairman of the regional administration, said.

Most of Lachin's houses are overgrown, their metal roofs rusting.

"When the Azeris left their homes, they set fire to them," said Hagopyan.

Hagopyan said most of the town's prewar population of 8,000 to 9,000 fled across the border to nearby Iran when Lachin was "liberated."

"We proposed that they live here with us in friendship, but they did not agree and left," Hagopyan said.

In their place, displaced Armenian families have been arriving.

Hagopyan said there are now some 800 to 900 people in the town.

"All of the people here are refugees. We have nowhere to go. There is no room in Armenia and it is difficult to live there. There is no room in Karabakh and everything is ruined there. It's ruined here too, but at least we have land," he said.