In a fresh escalation of tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan’s military shot down on Wednesday an Armenian combat helicopter near Karabakh, killing its three crew members.
In a statement, the Karabakh Armenian army said the Mi-24 helicopter belonging to it was destroyed while flying “very close” to the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” east of the disputed territory. The statement said it came under “intensive” Azerbaijani gunfire even after falling to the ground.
The Armenian-backed army reported no further details of the incident, the first of its kind since a Russian-mediated truce stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Karabakh in 1994. “An investigation is underway and additional information will be provided after it is over,” its spokesman, Senor Hasratian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) from Stepanakert.
Later in the day the Karabakh Defense Army identified the three dead pilots as Major Sergey Sahakian, Senior Lieutenant Sargis Nazarian and Lieutenant Azat Sahakian.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry claimed that the helicopter gunship was shot down after “attacking” Azerbaijani army positions in the Aghdam district east of Karabakh. It said Armenian warplanes and helicopters had carried out “provocative flights” over the frontline in the past three days.
The Armenian military dismissed those claims. Military officials in Stepanakert and Yerevan insisted that the Mi-24 carried no weapons and did not cross the frontline.
“The escalation of the situation by the Azerbaijani side continued even after the helicopter fell,” said Artsrun Hovannisian, the spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Yerevan. “Gunshots from the Azerbaijani side did not allow [Armenian servicemen] to approach the pilots.”
“The consequences of this unprecedented escalation of tension will be very painful for Azerbaijan,” Hovannisian warned in a Facebook post. He did not elaborate.
The helicopter was brought down as tens of thousands of Armenian and Karabakh soldiers held large-scale exercises near “the line of contact” for a seventh consecutive day. Official Baku condemned the drills last week.
The shooting down came just over three months after an upsurge in deadly truce violations around Karabakh as well as on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, which left at least 16 Azerbaijani and 6 Armenian soldiers dead. Tensions on the frontlines eased substantially following an August 10 meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, which was mediated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.