By Hrach Melkumian
The chief of staff of Greece’s armed forces pledged Monday to step up Greek-Armenian military cooperation as he started a three-day official visit to Yerevan which will focus on Armenia’s impending first-ever participation in a peace-keeping operation abroad.
General Georgios Antonokopoulos and his Armenian counterpart, General Mikael Harutiunian, are due to formalize plans to send a platoon of Armenian troops in the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo where a NATO-led multinational force has been maintaining peace for the past four years.
The small unit numbering about 30 soldiers is part of Armenia’s Greek-trained peace-keeping battalion. Under a bilateral agreement to be signed on Wednesday, it will operate under the command of Greek forces already deployed in Kosovo.
“I reaffirm that Greece will provide its utmost support to the Armenian military in dispatching that peace-keeping platoon to Kosovo,” Antonokopoulos told reporters.
It is not yet clear when the Armenian soldiers will head to the Albanian-populated region that has been run as a U.N. protectorate since 1999 when NATO bombing ended Serbian rule there. Military officials had earlier mentioned August as the likely date for their dispatch.
Harutiunian said the Defense Ministry is now awaiting the green light from parliament, which under Armenia’s constitution has to authorize any troop deployment abroad. “We are prepared to send them to Kosovo even tomorrow,” he said.
According to the chairman of the parliament committee on defense and security, Mher Shahgeldian, the government has yet to ask the National Assembly to discuss the matter. It is expected that the Armenian peace-keepers will spend some time in Greece before entering Kosovo. Their present combat-readiness will be assessed this week by Greek army officers accompanying Antonokopoulos.
The Greek military has played a central role in the formation of the Armenian peace-keeping unit last year. More than 50 of its members have undergone training in Greece. Harutiunian indicated that the Greeks will also cover the costs of Armenian participation in the Kosovo mission.
“All financial issues have already been settled,” he told journalists at the Zvartnots airport. “We thank Greece for greatly helping us send the platoon.”
The Greek support for the undertaking is indicative of broader military-to-military ties between the two countries that make Athens Yerevan’s closest NATO partner. They are also on the agenda of Antonokopoulos’s visit which includes meetings with President Robert Kocharian, and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
“The main purpose of my visit is to expand our military cooperation,” the Greek army chief said. “We want to continue Greece’s support to the Armenian armed forces. The Greek armed forces have repeatedly proved their friendly and brotherly attitude toward the Armenian army.”
Antonokopoulos said the bilateral defense ties currently cover ten specific areas, including military-technical cooperation, and will take new forms in the near future. He would not go into details, however.
Much of the Greek assistance in recent years has involved training of Armenian officers in Greek military academies. Athens also regularly sends what officials from the two countries call “humanitarian assistance” to the Armenian military. Officials say that mainly includes medical equipment and other non-combat supplies.
(Photolur photo: Antonokopoulos, left, on his arrival at Yerevan airport.)