Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have issued fresh warnings to Azerbaijan after it stepped up its threats to forcibly halt planned commercial flights to the disputed territory.
The Azerbaijani government on Friday formally authorized its air force to shoot down any aircraft flying above Karabakh without Baku’s permission if there is “no precise information about civilian passengers on board.” Azerbaijani warplanes will have to force them to land at an Azerbaijani airport if they are known to transport civilians, according to that decision.
Azerbaijani news agencies quoted Arif Mammadov, head of the country’s civil aviation authority, as saying that during the reconstruction of Karabakh’s sole airport Baku repeatedly warned relevant international bodies that the planned Yerevan-Stepanakert flights are illegal. “We informed them that Nagorno-Karbakh’s airspace is closed, and in accordance with our law on civil aviation, we plan to destroy aircraft that will try to land there,” he said.
Armenia’s Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian dismissed those threats at a news conference later on Friday. “After a final decision is made [on the flights] Armenia’s air defense and air forces will ensure [the safety] of planned flights by civilian aircraft,” he said.
Ohanian’s spokesman, Artsrun Hovannisian, likewise insisted on Wednesday that the Armenian military will prevent the Azerbaijani side from disrupting the flight service. “Air-defense forces are supposed to not only shoot down enemy warplanes but also ensure the security of civilian aircraft,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Hovannisian argued that Armenian military and civilian helicopters have for years flown to Karabakh without any problems. “Such flights to Stepanakert are also taking place at present,” he said.
Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leadership denounced the Azerbaijani government decision as “state terrorism” and said it will not thwart the reopening of Stepanakert airport. “We are capable of ensuring the security of our airspace and the entire territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,” a spokeswoman for NKR President Bako Sahakian reportedly said over the weekend.
The international community has repeatedly expressed concern over the flight controversy, urging the conflicting parties to seek a “diplomatic solution” to the dispute. U.S., Russian and French diplomats trying to broker a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict voiced serious misgivings about the planned flights when they visited Stepanakert last November.