Azerbaijan on Sunday postponed taking control of a territory ceded by Armenian forces in a cease-fire agreement, but denounced civilians leaving the area for burning houses and committing what it called "ecological terror."
The cease-fire ended six weeks of intense fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and territories outside its formal borders that had been under the control of Armenian forces since 1994.
The agreement calls for Azerbaijan to take control of the outlying territories. The first, Kelbajar, was to be turned over on Sunday.
But Azerbaijan agreed to delay the takeover until Nov 25 after a request from Armenia.
Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said worsening weather conditions made the withdrawal of Armenian forces and civilians difficult along the single road through mountainous territory that connects Kelbajar with Armenia.
After the agreement was announced early Tuesday, many distraught residents preparing to evacuate set their houses ablaze to make them unusable to Azerbaijanis who would move in.
"Armenians are damaging the environment and civilian objects. Environmental damage, ecological terror must be prevented," Mr Hajiyev said.
Prior to a separatist war that ended in 1994, Kelbajar was populated almost exclusively by Azerbaijanis. But the territory then came under Armenian control and Armenians moved in. Azerbaijan deemed their presence illegal.
"The placement and settlement of the Armenian population in the occupied territory of the Kelbajar region was illegal ... All illegal settlements there must be evicted," Mr Hajiyev said.
The imminent renewal of Azerbaijani control raised wide concerns about the fate of Armenian cultural and religious sites, particularly Dadivank, a noted Armenian Apostolic Church monastery that dates back to the ninth century.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev assured Russian President Vladimir Putin, who negotiated the cease-fire and is sending about 2,000 peacekeeping troops, that Christian churches would be protected.
"Christians of Azerbaijan will have access to these churches," Mr Aliyev's office said in statement Sunday.
Azerbaijan is about 95 per cent Muslim and Armenia is overwhelmingly Christian. Azerbaijan accuses Armenians of desecrating Muslim sites during their decades of control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, including housing livestock in mosques.