By Ruzanna Stepanian
A senior lawmaker said on Monday that the Armenian military should consider launching cross-border offensive operations against Azerbaijani army positions if the latest truce violations reported by Yerevan continue unabated in the coming days.
The spokesman for Armenia’s Defense Ministry, Seyran Shahsuvarian, said Armenian forces deployed along the heavily militarized border with Azerbaijan have come under automatic gunfire on a practically daily basis over the past week. He said such incidents were until now registered only once or twice a month.
The reported fighting, not confirmed or denied by Baku, appears to be largely confined to the western section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Shahsuvarian said a 19-year-old Armenian soldier, Arsen Zakevosian, was killed there on Friday during a skirmish with Azerbaijani forces. The Armenian side suffered no other casualties in recent days, he added.
Shahsuvarian and other Armenian officials linked the truce violations to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev's renewed threats to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force. Vahan Hovannisian, the deputy parliament speaker and a leader of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), warned that Baku risks provoking a sharp Armenian response.
“If those shots become a serious threat to the security of some of our villages, settlements or our armed forces, then maybe there will arise the need to silence the sources [of shooting],” Hovannisian told RFE/RL. “I am not aware of technical details of what is going on at the frontline. But the very fact of casualties is a serious cause for concern,” he said.
But another senior Armenian lawmaker, Mher Shahgeldian, sounded a note of caution. “I don’t think these shots mean the start of a war,” he said. “We must simply remain constantly prepared [for any development].”
The fighting was also played down by Armenian Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian. “This happens all the time,” he told RFE/RL. Grigorian said an all-out war will break out only “if the Azeris are sure that they can defeat us.”
The reported shootouts underscore the escalation of Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions following the collapse of last month’s crucial Karabakh peace talks near Paris. Aliev has since said that his nation will not rush to make major concessions to the Armenians and must be prepared for attempting to win back Karabakh by force. Kocharian has responded by warning that Yerevan may formally recognize the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an independent state.
Azerbaijani media quoted the U.S. ambassador to Baku, Reno Harnish, as criticizing Kocharian’s threats on Friday. The Armenian Foreign Ministry on Monday denounced the remarks attributed to Harnish.
“I would like not to believe that that is what he said,” the ministry spokesman, Hamlet Gasparian, said in a statement. “If he did, however, I would suggest to the honorable ambassador that he not look too far, and instead comment on the statements made by Azerbaijan’s leadership, which provide ample material for a variety of assumptions, including heightening tensions in the region, and even directly threatening war.”
Meanwhile, the U.S., Russian and French diplomats spearheading the stalled peace process are preparing to meet in Washington this week to decide on their next steps. In a weekend interview with the official Azertaj news agency, the chief U.S. negotiator, Steven Mann, said he still believes that the peace process can be salvaged. But Mann warned that failure to achieve a breakthrough this year would delay the conflict’s resolution at least until 2009.