By Hovannes Shoghikian
Azerbaijan on Monday repatriated four Armenian men who crossed into its Nakhichevan exclave last April in still unclear circumstances.
They were sent back home through Nakhichevan’s main border crossing with Armenia with the help of officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Speaking to journalists after the handover, the men aged between 21 and 28 insisted that they are civilians who had accidentally strayed into Azerbaijani territory after visiting their friend serving in an Armenian army unit stationed in the southern Vayots Dzor region.
The Armenian Defense Ministry came up with the same theory when it confirmed their disappearance in late April.
Reports in the Armenian press have said that the captives were part of a larger group of residents of the eastern Gegharkunik region who rushed to the Vayots Dzor base on April 19 after a phone call from their soldier friend, who claimed to have been harassed by fellow army conscripts. After arriving at the base the 13 Gegharkunik residents reportedly got embroiled in a violent dispute with those soldiers that was stopped by gunshots fired into the air by the unit commander. Four of them -- Aghasi Yenokian, Artem Zohrabian, Karen Torosian and Vano Ghmboyan -- are said to have accidentally crossed into Azerbaijani territory at night.
The Azerbaijani military has claimed all along that the young men are Armenian army commandos who were sent to Nakhichevan on a sabotage mission. The Defense Ministry in Yerevan has laughed off those claims.
The four Armenians told reporters that they were kept in jail separately and mistreated during the first week of their captivity. “They stopped doing that after the first week,” said Yenokian.
In Zohrabian’s words, Azerbaijani military officials found suspicious the fact that he and his friends walked through minefields separating Armenian and Azerbaijani army positions unscathed. “They were mainly interested in finding out how we crossed the border,” he said. “They were wondering how we got through the minefield. They said that we must have known the safe path.”
The freed men also claimed that Azerbaijani officials discouraged them from returning to Armenia and offered to transfer them to a third country. Their return to Armenia did not necessarily mark the end of their ordeal as they face the possibility of prosecution by military prosecutors investigating the Vayots Dzor incident.