By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian Defense Ministry said on Friday that its representatives’ ill-fated attempt to attend a major NATO conference in Azerbaijan had been coordinated with U.S. military officials and the Alliance command in Brussels.
Senior ministry officials claimed that the route and other logistical modalities of their attempted trip to Baku were suggested by the U.S. military attache in Yerevan. They again blamed the Azerbaijani government for Turkish authorities’ decision to bar the Armenian army officers from taking an Istanbul-Baku flight on Wednesday.
According to General Mikael Melkonian, who heads the ministry’s foreign relations department, it was the U.S. attache who “advised” the three officers to apply to the Azerbaijani embassy in Tbilisi for visas and then travel to Baku via Istanbul.
“Such things are financed by the office of U.S. military attaché at the U.S. embassy in Armenia. They decide which tickets to buy for one or another activity,” said Colonel Murad Isakhanian, who led the delegation.
The conference concerned, which finished its work on Thursday, discussed plans for the holding in Azerbaijan this summer of a multinational military exercise under NATO’s Partnership for Peace program of which all three South Caucasus states are members. Under the PfP rules they are not allowed to prevent any other country from taking part in exercises held on their territory.
Official Yerevan, which has expressed its intention to send troops to the Azerbaijan drills, says the officers were denied Azerbaijani visas in Tbilisi and hoped to get them at Baku airport. In Isakhanian’s words they were told to do so by NATO officials in Brussels. But he said he and the two other officers were turned away by authorities at Istanbul airport.
The Armenian side insists that the decision was made at the request of Azerbaijan in contravention of “the letter and the spirit” of NATO’s cooperation framework. But Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev denied the charges, saying that his country did not impede Armenian participation in the NATO conference resented by local hardline nationalists.
“Azerbaijan was prepared to show joint understanding with the Armenian military personnel,” Guliev said Thursday without elaborating.
There has been no official reaction yet to the diplomatic spat from NATO’s Brussels headquarters.
Melkonian said the Armenian military would still like to participate in the planned NATO-led exercise and plans to send its representatives to three more planning conferences that will precede it. Two of them are due to take place in Spain and Ukraine, while the third, final one will again be held in Baku this spring.
(Photolur photo: Melkonian, left, and Isakhanian speaking at a joint news conference.)