The three pilots of an Armenian combat helicopter shot down by Azerbaijani forces near Nagorno-Karabakh received full military honors on Tuesday as they were laid to rest in a state funeral attended by top military officials and hundreds of ordinary people.
Thousands of other Armenians filed past the remains of Major Sergey Sahakian, 38, Senior Lieutenant Sargis Nazarian, 25, and Lieutenant Azat Sahakian, 22, placed in closed coffins inside a Yerevan church on Monday. Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, led a requiem service there in the presence of President Serzh Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders.
“We are proud of having such soldiers,” Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said in a speech delivered at Yerevan’s Yerablur military cemetery during the funeral. “Eternal glory to the heroes, to the Armenian army guaranteeing our security!” he added.
The commander of Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army, General Movses Hakobian, also attended the funeral. Hakobian gave relatives of the three officers medals that were posthumously awarded to them by Bako Sahakian, the Karabakh president.
Bako Sahakian decorated them at the weekend hours after the Karabakh Defense Army announced that it has retrieved “the corpse of one of the crew members, the remains of the two other pilots and some necessary parts of the helicopter” downed in the Aghdam district east of Karabakh on November 12. The army said its commandos reached the helicopter’s wreckage lying in no man’s land in a “special operation” that left at least two Azerbaijani soldiers dead. It said they neutralized heavy gunfire from nearby Azerbaijani army positions aimed at preventing the recovery of the bodies.
The Azerbaijani military denied suffering any casualties in the area. It claimed that the Armenian side did not gain access to the helicopter crash site and will hand “other remains” to the families of the dead pilots.
The Defense Army sought to disprove the Azerbaijani allegations with aerial images of the site purportedly taken before and after the operation. It also demonstrated, in a short video footage, the body of one of the crew members that was apparently not burned to ashes after an Azerbaijani shoulder-launched rocket hit the Mi-24 gunship.
The Defense Ministry in Baku had repeatedly rejected international mediators’ calls for Azerbaijan to give the Armenian side “humanitarian access” to the wreckage. It accused the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group of adopting a pro-Armenian stance.
Baku says that the helicopter was downed after attacking its frontline positions. The Armenian side strongly denies that, saying that the Mi-24 did not cross the frontline and carried no live ammunition. It has also pledged a strong retaliation for the incident that has raised fresh rears of another Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Karabakh.