BAKU - Azerbaijan denied accusations of ethnic cleansing to clear the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh of its ethnic Armenian population, and told AFP its inhabitants were free to stay or go.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has several times accused Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing since the enclave's decades-long push to break away from Azerbaijani rule ended in sudden defeat on September 20.
On Saturday, Pashinyan said more than 100,000 of Nagorno-Karabakh's estimated 120,000 inhabitants had fled to neighbouring Armenia.
"We cannot accept accusations of ethnic cleansing or genocide," Hikmet Hajiyev, diplomatic advisor to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, told AFP in an interview Saturday.
"Ethnic cleansing is a forceful action, when somebody is using force against civilians -- (which is) what exactly Armenia used against us, 30 years ago."
"But it doesn't mean we will repeat the same. There was no single case of violence or atrocity against civilians. They attest this themselves," Hajiyev claimed.
"And there were no 'Armenian' citizens in Karabakh," he added.
"We always considered them as Azerbaijan citizens but unfortunately an illegal separatist entity didn't allow us to have direct communication with them," he said, of the ethnic Armenian separatists who governed the enclave for three decades.
He said Azerbaijan had "engaged internal security troops to coordinate with the so-called local Armenian authorities".
"They are still in control of the cities," he said.
- 'Re-integration' talks -
Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian authorities agreed on Thursday to dissolve their government and allow the mainly Christian enclave to become a formal part of majority-Muslim Azerbaijan by the end of the year.
Baku and the separatist leaders are to hold talks on the transition in Stepanakert on Monday.
Hajiyev said discussions with the ethnic Armenians were productive and centred on disarming its military.
Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of illegally arresting people and says the enclave's inhabitants are fleeing out of fear of reprisals.
Hajiyev said Azerbaijan had detained "five to six" people who it accused of "war crimes".
"We know that there were concerns in Armenia and international media that we will arrest all militaries," he said.
"They are free. If somebody puts downs his gun, they are free and they have decided on their own choice to go to the republic of Armenia."
As for civilians, "we opened the gate and respected their freedom of movement, freedom of choice".
"The majority of them are saying: 'I can't live under the flag of Azerbaijan'. I can't justify it, but I can understand and respect that.
"If they accept Azerbaijan citizenship, we will protect and ensure their rights and their security and we will establish a municipality system so that they can govern their affairs at a local level, and religious and cultural rights will be assured."