The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed on the need for further confidence-building measures in the protracted search for peace in Karabakh as they held a fresh round of talks in Russia.
Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev reportedly reaffirmed their commitment to finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict after their meeting on Wednesday and said that an exchange of prisoners of war and bodies of those killed in recent skirmishes is required as a major confidence-building measure to move forward in negotiations.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted the meeting of the two presidents in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan.
Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted Medvedev as telling the media after the talks that in a special declaration aimed at building confidence the parties had agreed on “an exchange of prisoners-of-war and bodies of those killed.”
The three presidents issued a statement on the results of their talks, “confirming the clauses of the joint Declaration signed in Moscow on November 2, 2008” and “emphasizing that the settlement of the conflict through political and diplomatic means requires further efforts on strengthening the ceasefire regime and confidence-building measures in the military sphere.”
The document says that “for this purpose the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed, as the first step, to urgently conduct an exchange of prisoners-of-war and the return of the bodies of killed people with the assistance of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group and the International Committee of the Red Cross.”
They also reportedly stated their commitment “to be guided by these approaches in the future, proceeding exclusively from the humanitarian nature of such issues.”
The declaration in Astrakhan comes amid intensified armed clashes around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
On the eve of the talks, Armenia accused Azerbaijani forces of killing an ethnic Armenian soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh in a bid to disrupt peace talks.
Earlier, Yerevan said Baku still holds the body of an Armenian captive who died under disputed circumstances in Azeri custody earlier this month.
Officials in Baku, meanwhile, have been seeking the return of the body of an Azerbaijani soldier killed in a firefight in Karabakh a few months ago.
Karabakh, an enclave within Azerbaijan populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, was at the center of a war that ended with an uneasy ceasefire in 1994, leaving its territory as well as large parts of surrounding districts under Armenian control. An internationally mediated search for peace since then has not been successful.
A report posted on the Armenian president’s official website on Wednesday said that in Astrakhan, the presidents “discussed details of the process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement for the purpose of continuing the negotiations work till the OSCE summit to be held in Astana and for reaching a mutual agreement on the basic principles.”
“An arrangement was made on the exchange of prisoners-of-war and the bodies of killed persons according to a humanitarian principle,” the report added.
The last time Medvedev hosted a meeting between Sarkisian and Aliyev was on June 17 and within just over 24 hours after that meeting a major ceasefire violation occurred on the line of contact between the Azerbaijani and Karabakh-Armenian armed forces, with four Armenian and one Azerbaijani soldiers reportedly killed in the firefight.
The situation around Karabakh has remained volatile since that incident, with skirmishes reported virtually every day. Both sides have suffered more than a dozen confirmed military casualties in recent months.
According to the information reported by the Armenian president’s press service, before the trilateral meeting President Sarkisian visited an Armenian monument in the center of Astrakhan and laid a flower basket at the khachkar (cross stone), which was erected in the Russian city in the 1930s in the place of a destroyed Armenian church. The stone cross was meant to perpetuate the memory of the Armenian church that was built in Astrakhan in 1706.
The spiritual leader of Astrakhan’s Armenian St. Hripsime church, representatives of the local authorities as well as the local Armenian community reportedly accompanied the Armenian president.
Meanwhile, President Aliyev attended the opening of a monument to his late father Heydar, who served as Azerbaijan’s president in 1993-2003 and is still held as national hero in the South Caucasus country.