By Ruzanna Stepanian
Hundreds of Armenian prisoners of war and civilians remain in Azerbaijani captivity nearly twelve years after the end of large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a senior Armenian Defense Ministry official claimed on Tuesday.
“We have information that they are used as slave labor in Azerbaijan,” Colonel Ashot Balian, a member of a ministry commission dealing missing Armenian soldiers and civilian hostages, told RFE/RL. “The Azerbaijani authorities keep moving them around and leaving no traces of them.”
“I therefore can’t name any specific locations, but we are convinced that they are in Azerbaijan. Some are even said to have been relocated to Turkey,” he said. “We still hope that our missing sons will return to their families one day.”
The Azerbaijani authorities have denied holding any Armenian prisoners in the past and allege, for their part, that thousands of missing Azerbaijani soldiers and civilians are being held in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian dismissed such claims as “unfounded” during a meeting on Friday with the visiting chairman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jacob Kellenberger. Sarkisian said he hopes ICRC will certify “the absence of hostages in Armenia” in its future reports.
The Red Cross, which has offices in both Baku and Yerevan, is the main international institution that arranges Armenian-Azerbaijani prisoner exchanges and repatriations. Both conflicting armies continue to turn to it for assistance after reporting soldier disappearances.