By Gevorg Stamboltsian
Azerbaijan does not object to arch-foe Armenia’s participation in a NATO-led military exercise which is scheduled to take place on its territory this September, the spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Baku said on Thursday.
"The exercise is organized by NATO and we are prepared to ensure that everyone invited, including Armenian Defense Ministry officials, attends it," the official, Ramiz Melikov, told the Russian Interfax news agency.
There was no word on whether the Azerbaijani leadership would allow a unit of combat troops from Armenia to take part in the wargames to be held within the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Such a prospect has aroused nationalist passions in Azerbaijan where some hardline groups threatened violence against any Armenian servicemen who would set foot in their country.
Melkiov’s statement came just days after a top U.S. military official raised the issue with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev during a visit to Baku. “He personally assured me that Armenia could participate,” General Charles Wald, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said in Yerevan on Monday.
Wald reaffirmed Washington’s support for the Armenian involvement in the exercise codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2004. “We fully expect Armenia to participate and think it’s an outstanding way to develop cooperative efforts in this region,” he said, adding that the U.S. ambassador to NATO is personally dealing with the matter.
The U.S. State Department had earlier expressed “disappointment” at the failure of three senior Armenian Defense Ministry officials to attend the first planning conference for the drills held in Baku last January. The Armenian government laid the blame on Azerbaijan, saying that it forced authorities at Istanbul airport to bar the officers from boarding a plane bound for the Azerbaijani capital. The officers reportedly hoped to obtain entry visas at the Baku airport after failing to get them from the Azerbaijani consulate in Tbilisi.
Melikov, however, insisted that his country never obstructed the arrival of Armenian officers. “As a rule, Armenian military officers are unwilling to travel to Baku but try to claim that their absence is the result of Azerbaijan's obstruction,” he said.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Wald, the chief of the General Staff of the Armenian army, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, said Yerevan would still like to join the PfP drills despite the recent brutal killing in Hungary of an Armenian officer by an Azerbaijani colleague.
Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian was hacked to death while he slept in his Budapest dormitory early on February 19. Markarian and his attacker, Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, were attending a NATO-sponsored English-language course at Hungary’s top military academy. Safarov has since been in Hungarian custody and will face trial soon.
The Armenian Defense Ministry, according to the head of its external relations department, Major-General Mikael Melkonian, already plans to send two officers to another planning conference in Baku scheduled for June. Speaking to RFE/RL, he said the Armenian military also hopes to send a platoon of soldiers and staff officers to the exercise.