President Serzh Sarkisian flew to Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday to monitor large-scale Armenian military exercises that are being held in and around the territory.
Sarkisian’s press office said that “within the framework of the exercises” he will also tour Karabakh Armenian military bases and assess the combat readiness of troops stationed there.
The office released photographs of a uniform-clad Sarkisian emerging from a military helicopter at Stepanakert’s recently reconstructed airport and being greeted on the tarmac by Bako Sahakian, the president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
Sarkisian was shown later in the day watching exercises by Karabakh Armenian commandos and handing gifts to some members of the special forces. He went on to hold a meeting with the top brass of the Armenian and Karabakh armies in what looked like a large military tent.
The presidential press service said Sarkisian “listened to the decision made by the commander of the NKR Defense Army,” General Movses Hakobian. It did not elaborate.
The armed forces of Armenia and Karabakh began the drills on November 6. They are reportedly involving tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks and artillery systems.
Sarkisian’s visit comes one day after Azerbaijani forces shot down a Karabakh Armenian helicopter near “the line of contact” east of Karabakh in a fresh escalation of tensions in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The Azerbaijani military claimed that it was brought down while “attacking” its frontline positions. The military authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert strongly denied that, saying that the Mi-24 helicopter did not cross the frontline or even carry rockets or other live ammunition.
The Armenian president, who was born in Karabakh and led local Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan, made no public statements on the incident as of late afternoon. The Armenian Foreign Ministry accused Baku on Monday night of resorting to the “criminal provocation” to torpedo international efforts to end the Karabakh conflict.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry defended the downing of the Mi-24. It also said that “Azerbaijan is declaring the airspace above the occupied territories closed to flights.” Officials in Stepanakert laughed off that statement, saying that Armenian warplanes and helicopters will continue flying over Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-controlled territories as planned.
The helicopter was apparently brought down by a shoulder-launched missile, falling to no man’s land in the Aghdam district partly controlled by the Karabakh Armenians. The Karabakh military said on Thursday that due to continuing “intensive” gunfire from the Azerbaijani side it has still not been able to approach the helicopter’s wreckage and recover the bodies of its three crew members presumed dead. The Defense Ministry spokesman, Senor Hasratian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that one of the pilots might still be alive.
The authorities in Stepanakert also asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRC) to help them locate and repatriate the pilots. An ICRC spokeswoman in Yerevan said the Red Cross is now exploring such a possibility.
According to the Armenian presidential press office, Sarkisian flew to Karabakh after watching an air-defense exercise at a military base in eastern Armenia. The office circulated photographs of anti-aircraft systems firing surface-to-air missiles.