By Hrach Melkumian
Armenia reaffirmed on Thursday its plans to take part in the NATO-led military exercise in Azerbaijan this September but appeared to have scaled back its participation, strongly opposed by many Azerbaijanis.
“We have been assigned concrete roles [by the organizers] and we will take part in the exercise in accordance with them,” Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian told reporters. He said the Armenian military will likely send only between five and seven officers to the “Cooperative Best Effort 2004” war games to be held within the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
Armenian military officials had earlier expressed their intention to participate in them with not only staff officers but also a platoon of combat troops, saying that they do not want to be reduced to mere “observers.” The presence of such a contingent in Azerbaijan would be extremely sensitive given the two countries’ unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aghabekian clarified that Armenia has been given five slots in the NATO-led multinational force that will practice various peace-keeping tasks at an Azerbaijani military facility. This suggest that a compromise agreement has been reached behind the scenes to give the Armenians some combat role in the PfP undertaking.
Final preparations for the drills were discussed this week at a conference in Baku attended by military representatives from the participating nations, including two officials from the Armenian Defense Ministry. The conference was overshadowed by angry protests against their arrival in the Azerbaijani capital which were staged by a local pressure group favoring a hard line on Karabakh.
Dozens of members of the Karabakh Liberation Organization (KLO) clashed on Tuesday with police deployed outside the hotel where the conference was taking place. Some of them managed to storm into the conference hall before being arrested by law-enforcement officials. The detainees were charged with “hooliganism.” Among them is the radical head of the nationalist group, Akif Nagi.
Prominent Azerbaijani politicians and public figures have expressed their solidarity with the protesters, saying that the presence of the Armenian army officers is an affront to their country which they believe is a victim of “Armenian aggression.” The officers, Colonel Murard Isakhanian and Senior Lieutenant Aram Hovannisian, flew back to Tbilisi on Thursday and were due to reach Yerevan later in the day.
Aghabekian revealed that the Armenian side had asked the U.S. embassy in Baku to ensure their security. “But after repeated requests from the Azerbaijani side we agreed to give that task to Azerbaijani security bodies,” he said.
The NATO conference came amid continuing fighting along the westernmost section of the heavily militarized border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenian military reported on Wednesday its second casualty since the outbreak of deadly skirmishes in the line of contact between the northeastern Tavush region and the adjoining Gazakh district in Azerbaijan earlier this month. It said Colonel Radik Avetisian, 47, was killed by sniper fire on Monday.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, for its part, said on Wednesday that one of its servicemen, a 23-year-old lieutenant, was shot dead by Armenian forces in similar circumstances. The Baku daily “Zerkalo,” citing an unidentified “military source,” reported that the Azerbaijani army has lost seven soldiers over the past two weeks. The source confirmed Armenian reports that Azerbaijani troops advanced and dug in closer to the Armenian positions “several weeks ago.”
The Armenian side says that was the main cause of the disruption of the ceasefire regime in the area. Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, the chief of the army staff, said last week that he ordered his forces to also move forward and prevent the Azerbaijanis from damaging a nearby facility that supplies irrigation water to five Tavush villages.
The water is pumped from a big reservoir straddling the Tavush-Gazakh section of the border.