Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian-backed armed forces said on Saturday that they have recovered, in a commando raid, the bodies of the three Armenian pilots of a combat helicopter shot down by Azerbaijani forces last week.
In a statement, the Defense Army said its special forces approached the wreckage of the Mi-24 gunship in the no man’s land east of Karabakh despite the Azerbaijani military’s refusal to grant the Armenian side access to the site. It said they managed to evacuate “the corpse of one of the crew members, the remains of the two other pilots and some necessary parts of the helicopter.”
“Two enemy soldiers were taken out during the special operation,” added the statement. “The Defense Army suffered no casualties.”
The army clarified later in the day that the operation took place on Thursday. An Azerbaijani army soldier was reportedly killed in action in the Aghdam district east of Karabakh on that day. The Armenian helicopter was downed on the frontline running through that district.
The Karabakh Armenian military did not explain why it did not immediately announce the evacuation.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry confirmed and hailed the reported evacuation as “unprecedented.” The ministry spokesman, Artsrun Hovannisian, said Karabakh Armenian commandos neutralized an “ambush” set up by Azerbaijani troops. “It was a world-class, brilliant operation,” Hovannisian wrote on Facebook. He gave no other details.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry was quick to deny the information, however, saying that Armenian soldiers did not access to the crash site reportedly located less than 200 kilometers from Azerbaijani army positions. It claimed that the Armenian military will “fool the Armenian people” by handing “other remains” to the families of the dead pilots.
“In that direction the Azerbaijani side suffered no casualties, and the situation is under our full control,” said a ministry statement cited by haqqin.az.
In a separate statement, the Azerbaijani military alleged 75 instances of Armenian ceasefire violation along “the line of contact” around Karabakh on the night from Friday to Saturday.
The Karabakh army shrugged off those claims. It pointed to the Azerbaijani combat death reported on Thursday and released aerial photographs of the helicopter crash site which it said were taken before and after the operation. One of the images purportedly shows the body of one of the Armenian pilots lying amidst the debris.
Earlier this week the Defense Ministry in Baku rejected international mediators’ calls for Azerbaijan to give the Armenian side “humanitarian access” to the helicopter’s wreckage. It accused the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group of adopting a pro-Armenian stance.
James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair, tweeted on Friday: “Military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh does not help efforts to recover the remains of the helo crew. We urge dialogue and diplomacy.”
The Armenian helicopter was shot down on November 12 during large-scale exercises that were held by the armed forces of Armenia and Karabakh. The Azerbaijani military claimed that it was downed after attacking its frontline positions.
The Armenian vehemently denied that, saying that the Mi-24 did not cross the frontline and carried no live ammunition. It also pledged a strong retaliation.
The incident raised fresh fears that the Karabakh conflict will degenerate into a full-scale Armenian-Azerbaijani war. Armenian leaders insist, however, that the war is still unlikely in the short term. Speaking at the end of the Karabakh drills on November 14, President Serzh Sarkisian said Baku will not dare to attempt to reconquer Karabakh and surrounding Armenian-controlled lands any time soon.