By Armen Zakarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian claimed on Tuesday that Azerbaijan may be preparing for another war in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying that Azerbaijani troops have moved closer to Armenian positions along the heavily militarized frontline in recent weeks. He said the Armenian government has already alerted international mediators about what it sees as a possibility of renewed fighting.
“They have been bringing their trenches closer to ours and more casualties are suffered as a result,” Oskanian told reporters. “We just don’t see the rationale for that and are starting to think that maybe they want to torpedo negotiations, maybe they have a serious intention to start military actions.”
The remarks are the starkest yet warning about a resumption of the Karabakh war voiced by a senior Armenian official since the signing of the May 1994 ceasefire agreement. They follow recent deadly skirmishes reported along the line of contact northeast of Karabakh. Each side blamed the other for the truce violations.
“The Armenian army is ready to give an adequate response to any Azerbaijani offensive,” Oskanian said. He added that official Yerevan has conveyed its concerns to the United States, Russia and France that jointly co-chair the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“They are preparing for a state of war,” a senior member of the Yerkrapah Union of Karabakh war veterans, Miasnik Malkhasian, told RFE/RL. “This must be a serious wake-up call to Armenians and relevant steps must be taken.”
Azerbaijani leaders regularly threaten to win back Karabakh and Armenian-controlled territories surrounding it by force if the long-running peace talks remain deadlocked. “The people of Azerbaijan will never put up with the loss of their lands,” President Ilham Aliev repeated over the weekend. “The people will liberate their native lands at all costs.”
Addressing a congress of the governing Yeni Azerbaycan party, Aliev at the same time claimed that recent trends in the peace process bode well for Azerbaijan. He referred in particular to the so-called Prague process of meetings between Oskanian and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
“We hope a mutually acceptable solution meeting all the international law norms will be found as a result of the Prague process,” he said. “However, if the negotiations are unsuccessful again, then further talks will be senseless.”
Oskanian and Mammadyarov were due to continue their talks in the Czech capital on March 2. They were cancelled due to Oskanian’s illness. Mammadyarov was quoted by the Azerbaijani media this week as saying that the meeting will take place at the end of April.
But Oskanian insisted that no new dates have been set yet. He also indicated that a possible meeting in May between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents would be far more important. “We believe that quite a lot of work has been done by the ministers and it is time for the presidents to step in,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Armenian parliament’s foreign relations committee opened earlier on Tuesday two-day hearings on the Karabakh conflict and possible ways of resolving it. They are attended by senior government officials and representatives of political groups represented in the National Assembly.
“Common ground is on the horizon,” Oskanian told the hearings. “But at the same time we are still far apart in our positions.”
Oskanian and other speakers were unanimous in ruling out Karabakh’s return under Azerbaijani rule under any circumstances. Opinion only differed on whether the Armenian-populated enclave should be independent or formally become part of Armenia.
Armen Rustamian, the committee chairman who presided over the hearings, called for the creation of an interagency body that would coordinate Armenia’s Karabakh policy. He also urged Yerevan to formalize its close political, economic and military links with the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). But it was not clear if Rustamian advocated the NKR’s formal recognition by Armenia.