The chairman of a key U.S. Congressional committee has again called on the U.S., Russian and French mediators to press Azerbaijan to accept major safeguards against intensifying ceasefire violations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone.
Ed Royce, a pro-Armenian Republican of California heading the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also said on Wednesday that the U.S. administration must not shy away from blaming Azerbaijan for deadly fighting along “the line of contact” around Karabakh.
“Why are the snipers not pulled back from the border?” Royce asked during a Capitol Hill event dedicated to the 24th anniversary of Karabakh’s declaration of independence from Azerbaijan. “Why have we not deployed those [gunfire] direction finders, that special equipment? They can tell where an incoming shell is coming from and identify that and thus be able to catalogue violations of the peace?”
“Why haven’t those in the Minsk Group moved forward to endorse this?” Royce added, referring to the mediating body co-headed by diplomats from the United States, Russia and France. He said he and several other members of the U.S. House of Representatives hope to discuss the matter with the group’s U.S. co-chair, James Warlick, early next week.
Incidentally, Warlick was reportedly present at the annual event co-hosted by the U.S. Congressional Caucus On Armenian Issues as well as the two main Armenian-American lobby groups. Armenia’s ambassador in Washington, Tigran Sarkisian, and Karen Mirzoyan, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), were also in attendance.
Royce initiated in late October a joint letter by over 80 U.S. lawmakers to Warlick listing three concrete measures which they believe would minimize truce violations in the conflict zone. Those include mutual sniper withdrawal, deployment of more field observers from the OSCE, and installation of gunfire-locator systems on the Karabakh frontline. Warlick reportedly backed the proposed safeguards.
The Minsk Group co-chairs have long been urging the conflicting parties to withdraw their snipers and agree to a mechanism for international investigations of armed incidents. These measures are backed by Armenia and the Karabakh Armenians but rejected by Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov reiterated late last month that they would only reinforce the status quo. “If you want a mechanism for investigations, then you should pull your troops out of the occupied Azerbaijani territories,” Mammadyarov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Royce insisted on Wednesday that the “common sense steps” advocated by him and his colleagues would not only prevent more bloodshed but also “reinvigorate negotiations” on a Karabakh settlement. “And then the leaders of the Minsk Group can press Azerbaijan to fully pull back those snipers from the Line of Contact,” he went on. “And they can accurately identify who violates the ceasefire with artillery fire.”
“Once we accurately identified who violated the ceasefire agreement, it is important that the international community has the courage to call out those responsible and hold them accountable,” he said, standing in front of American, Armenian and NKR flags. “And that means we must end our current U.S. policy of equivocation. We have to speak the truth regarding the perpetrator of each and every attack.”
Royce’s appeal followed a fresh escalation of fighting around Karabakh, which has left several Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers dead over the past 10 days. The warring sides accuse each other of increasingly using mortars and other heavy weapons in daily skirmishes.
Royce said that the truce violations pose a serious threat to the safety of Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population. “This isn’t a theoretical threat,” he said. “Those of us who remember 1988 remember the [anti-Armenian] pogroms in Baku. We remember what happened in [the Azerbaijani city of] Sumgait.”
The 64-year-old congressman, whose California constituency has many ethnic Armenian voters, has already accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire in the past. In an August 2014 statement, he also urged the Obama administration to help set a date for an internationally recognized referendum in Karabakh that would determine the territory’s final status.
The conduct of such a referendum is one of the Basic Principles of a Karabakh settlement proposed by the three mediating powers. The conflicting parties have for years disagreed on the date and other practical modalities of the vote.