By Armen Zakarian
A U.S. military official disclosed on Monday details of Armenia’s support for the American military campaign in Afghanistan, saying that Yerevan not only opened its airspace to U.S. warplanes but also offered Armenian airfields for their possible emergency landings.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Lieutenant-Colonel Eric von Tersch, the U.S. military attaché, said the overflights through Armenia spared U.S. aircraft stationed in neighboring Turkey the dangerous task of refueling in mid-air on their way back from Afghanistan. He also revealed that about 360 Armenian nationals had volunteered to fight against the Taliban regime alongside U.S. troops last fall.
“I’ve got a list of about 360 people who wanted to pack up, go over to Afghanistan and contribute to the war on terror,” von Tersch said. “These were all volunteers. It wasn’t coming through the government, and obviously, we were not going to accept people like that.”
“As much as we appreciate their offer of support, it has to come through the government. It can’t come through the individuals,” he said, suggesting that the Armenians expected solid financial compensation for their participation in the war.
It was not clear whether any of those men had taken part in the ill-fated Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Some 1,400 Armenians served in the Soviet troops that controlled much of the country from 1979-1989. More a hundred of them lost their lives.
Von Tersch said the individual offers of support were “matched officially in several ways,” reminding of the Armenian government’s decision in September 2001 to allow the U.S. warplanes to fly over Armenian territory on their Afghan missions. He claimed that they carried only “humanitarian” cargos.
“The airplanes were coming out of Turkey and dropping all the foodstuffs to different groups of Afghan people,” the U.S. official explained. “They could fly to Afghanistan, drop their loads and fly back directly without having to do the dangerous refueling in the air. If they didn’t fly over Armenia, they would have had to go over Georgia, which would have required the refueling in the high altitude.”
Von Tersch further revealed that the Armenian government allowed U.S. planes returning from Afghanistan to carry out emergency landings in Armenia and pledged to provide medical treatment to the American servicemen “in case we had spinal injuries in Afghanistan and couldn’t get them all the way down to Germany.”
He said: “If a plane got shot up on its way back from Afghanistan, it could land in Armenian airfields without clearance and questions. We also had an understanding that if any of those planes went down in Armenia, the Armenians would provide security and medical care for the pilots.”
The military strikes on Afghanistan, which followed the September 11 terror attacks, and the resulting review of Washington’s security priorities led to the lifting of the U.S. government ban on military aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Each of the two Caucasus foes received over $4 million in American military assistance shortly afterwards.
The Armenian government wants most of the funds to be spent on the upgrading of its military communication facilities -- a proposal accepted by the United States. According to the military attaché: “Aside from the communications equipment that will be purchased and provided to the Armenian military, we will also train a lot of their people to help them set up a communications school here to restructure the way they do their communications procedures.”
Von Tersch said the other part of the aid will be used for the training of Armenian military personnel, including a special peace-keeping battalion set up last year with a substantial financial and technical support of NATO member Greece. “We will come in behind and help the Greeks finish forming this peace-keeping battalion,” he added.
The U.S. Congress is expected to earmark another $4 million worth of military assistance to Armenia for the next financial year.