Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of staging a major provocation aimed at foiling the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh after an Azeri reconnaissance group infiltrated into the northeastern Martakert district of the unrecognized republic and unsuccessfully attempted to advance into its territory. The incident in which four Armenian soldiers are reported to have been killed and another four wounded occurred within a little more than 24 hours after an Armenian-Azeri summit in Russia discussing the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the overnight attack the infiltrators were reportedly met by Karabakh forces, which led to a deadly engagement in the early hours of Saturday. One dead has been reported on the Azeri side.
According to a report by the Defense Ministry of Armenia, at about midnight Saturday, an armed group from Azerbaijan penetrated into the northeastern part of the line of contact between the Karabakh and Azeri armed forces near the village of Chailu. In a reported close engagement that ensued the Karabakh forces managed to stop the advancement of the Azeri sabotage unit, which retreated to the Azerbaijan-controlled territory, leaving behind one dead soldier and stacks of ammunition. The Ministry did not report the exact number of soldiers who attempted to move into Karabakh’s territory. Military officials in Karabakh later reported that the sabotage group may have included about two dozen members.
In a statement issued on Saturday, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the aggression, accusing Baku of deliberately trying to torpedo the peace talks.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan held their latest round of talks aimed at finding a negotiated peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as recently as Thursday night. The trilateral meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, was hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Remarkably, the Kremlin reported progress following the talks, with Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan telling the media that the meeting had passed in "a constructive atmosphere" and that the sides had agreed to continue the negotiating process, which is being mediated by Russia, France and the United States as the cochairs of the OSCE Minsk Group.
Meanwhile, President Serzh Sargsyan, who continued his visit to St. Petersburg to attend more events after the Thursday summit, also condemned the aggression and offered his condolences to the families of its victims.
He told the media on Saturday that the incident was especially deplorable because it happened only hours after the trilateral meeting hosted by the Russian president.
“This means that the mediators have something to think about, because provocations, remaining unpunished – I’m not saying unanswered – lead to such and even worse consequences. This is also a disrespectful attitude towards the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen,” said Sargsyan after a brief meeting with President Medvedev earlier that day.
Commenting on the prospects of further talks with Azerbaijan after the incident, Sargsyan said that there is no need for any revisions, in the negotiations, by the Armenian side, which has never deviated from its goal while negotiating. “We are resolute in our will and are confident that we will achieve the recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. This is our goal,” Sargsyan emphasized.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has shrugged off accusations of trying to deliberately disrupt the peace process, but, significantly, has stressed that incidents in Karabakh show that the conflict is not “frozen”.
The Azeri Trend news agency quoted Elhan Polukhov, the official representative of Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry, as saying that “any clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone show that Azerbaijan will never put up with the fact of occupation of its territories and there is quite a simple way of avoiding an armed confrontation – to sit around the table of negotiations and continue the work on the basis of updated Madrid principles.”
According to Polukhov, the adoption and implementation of the document proposed to the sides for hammering out a framework agreement will help avoid such incidents that claim human lives.
“By the way, this fact once again shows that the Armenian-Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not frozen, as the Armenian side would like to think,” added Polukhov.
The plan proposed to Armenia and Azerbaijan by the OSCE Minsk Group basically calls for an Armenian withdrawal from several districts now controlled by the Karabakh military, the return of Azerbaijani refugees, security guarantees for the Armenian population and an interim status for Karabakh with the possibility of a future determination of the region’s ultimate legal status.
In recent weeks Azerbaijan has been indicating its acceptance of most of the provisions of the document and threatened to quit the talks unless Armenia follows suit.
Yerevan, meanwhile, has berated Azerbaijan for its continuing war rhetoric and for rejecting, out of hand, the possibility of Karabakh’s independent status and thus going against the presumption in the Madrid principles that Karabakh may ultimately gain internationally recognized independence.
Exchanges of fire and incidents involving infiltrators have been a frequent occurrence along the line of contact in Karabakh ever since a Russia-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994. According to different accounts, between 10 and 16 soldiers were killed on both sides in one such major clash that happened amid post-election instability in Armenia in March 2008.
An analyst in Yerevan has told ArmeniaNow that this latest incident that took place shortly after Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s talks with his Armenian counterpart in Russia only demonstrates the tension that exists along the line of contact in Karabakh.
Richard Giragosian, the director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, thinks that what happened this week was “either a test on Armenian response or a sign of lack of command and discipline in the Azerbaijani military.” The expert thinks the latter scenario is even worse and particularly worrisome.