John Heffern, the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan, on Tuesday discussed with with Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian the aftermath of last week’s downing by Azerbaijani forces of an Armenian combat helicopter, which reignited tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Heffern and Ohanian men met as the Armenian military was still unable to approach the wreckage of the Mi-24 helicopter and the three members of its crew presumed dead. A short statement by the Armenian Defense Ministry said the two men discussed “possible steps to coordinate international efforts aimed at ascertaining the fate” of the pilots and recovering their bodies. No further details were reported.
The meeting came as field representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitored the ceasefire regime at a section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” east of Karabakh where the helicopter was shot down on November 12.Andrzej Kasprzyk, the longtime head of an OSCE monitoring mission, observed the area from Karabakh Armenian army positions. Several members of his small mission were deployed on the Azerbaijani side of the heavily fortified frontline.
The monitors reportedly did not advance into the no man’s land between the opposing trenches where the wreckage of the Armenian helicopter lay for a sixth day.
Davit Babayan, the spokesman for Bako Sahakian, the Karabakh president, said over the weekend that Kasprzyk will likely visit the helicopter crash site reportedly located less than 200 meters from the nearest Azerbaijani trenches. Babayan said this might enable the Armenian side to recover the pilots’ bodies.
Military authorities in Stepanakert and Yerevan say that their forces have been unable to approach the wreckage so far because of heavy Azerbaijani fire. An Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman claimed on Tuesday that Azerbaijani troops stationed there are only returning fire.
For his part, the head of an Azerbaijani government body dealing with prisoners of war and missing persons said that Baku will give the Armenians access to the site only if it “deems that necessary.” “The Armenians are begging Andrzej Kasprzyk to help take back the bodies. But he has no such authority,” Firudin Sadiqov said, according to the APA news agency.
“They are openly saying that they won’t allow the Armenian side to approach that site,” Babayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in Stepanakert later in the day. “Only fascist regimes could adopt such positions during the Second World War,” he charged.
“The Azerbaijani side is doing everything to get a tough response,” warned Babayan. “I don’t know whether this is a manifestation of political masochism or something else.” “We will try to do everything to defend our honor and dignity, while making sure that there are no casualties,” he added without elaborating.
The Armenian military and Ohanian in particular have pledged to retaliate strongly for the downing of the helicopter, the first incident of its kind since a Russian-mediated truce stopped the Karabakh war in 1994. The Defense Ministry in Baku said on Monday an Armenian military action would provoke a “powerful and destructive” response.
The U.S., Russian and French mediators trying to broker an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal urged the conflicting parties to avoid a further escalation when they promptly reacted to the November 12 incident with a joint statement. “The region cannot afford another round of violence like we witnessed this summer,” they said, referring to last August’s upsurge in fighting, which left at least 16 Azerbaijani and 6 Armenian soldiers dead.
The Azerbaijani military says that the helicopter was brought down after attacking its frontline positions in the Aghdam district east of Karabakh. The Armenian side strongly denies this, saying that the Mi-24 carried no live ammunition and did not fly into Azerbaijani-controlled territory.