By Karine Kalantarian in Stepanakert and Aza Babayan in Moscow
The ethnic Armenian armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh ended on Wednesday week-long large-scale exercises which the disputed region’s leadership said highlighted their ability to fend off possible military action by Azerbaijan.
Hundreds of troops, backed up by tanks, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships firing live rounds, practiced defensive and offensive operations at a training ground not far from the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact east of Karabakh.
The war games, which will be evaluated by top military officials on Thursday, followed a familiar scenario, with the Karabakh army fighting back an enemy assault and then going on counteroffensive. They also involved a rare call-up of local army reservists who also took in the simulated fighting.
Armenia’s Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the chief of army staff, Colonel-Lieutenant Mikael Harutiunian, monitored the proceedings along with the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). “At first glance, everything is alright,” Sarkisian told reporters.
Armenian and Karabakh officials insisted that the exercises are not connected with Azerbaijan’s renewed threats to win back Karabakh by force or aimed at affecting the ongoing peace talks mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Sarkisian claimed that President Ilham Aliev and other Azerbaijani leaders make such threats for “propaganda purposes.”
Sarkisian also said he looks forward to Aliev’s meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House which is scheduled for April 28. “I am confident that the president of the United States will urge Aliev to resolve the conflict by peaceful means,” he said.
NKR President Arkady Ghukasian, for his part, remained skeptical about chances of a breakthrough in the peace process. “In my opinion, Azerbaijan is dragging out the negotiations,” he said. “Azerbaijan is not prepared for a settlement. But this is a case where I want to be mistaken.”
Ghukasian denied the existence of any major differences between Karabakh and Armenia on how to resolve the conflict, saying that the Karabakh Armenians “have no reason to mistrust” Yerevan. Still, he renewed calls for the NKR’s direct involvement in the peace process.
Meanwhile, Russia’s chief Karabakh negotiator, Yuri Merzlyakov, confirmed on Wednesday that he and the French and U.S. co-chairs of the Minsk Group will likely visit the conflict zone early next month in a bid to arrange another meeting between Aliev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian. Speaking to RFE/RL in Moscow, Merzlyakov said the two leaders have already been presented with the mediators’ revised peace proposals and are currently studying them. He refused to disclose those proposals.
The Minsk Group’s U.S. co-chair, Steven Mann, is due to pay a separate visit to Baku and Yerevan later this week.