Armenian government representatives said late on Thursday that a new group of Armenian prisoners is about to be set free and repatriated. However, none of them was on board a Russian plane that arrived from Baku to Yerevan shortly after midnight.
“Unfortunately, the return of prisoners is again delayed,” the office of Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian said in a statement posted on Facebook. It said that Azerbaijan is continuing to violate one of the key terms of the truce agreement.
“Negotiations mediated by Russia are continuing and we hope that the Azerbaijani side will at last respect the statement signed by it and implement the humanitarian agreement,” added the statement.
Andranik Kocharian, a senior lawmaker representing the ruling My Step bloc, said that Baku pledged to free more Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian captives as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest conversations with Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leaders.
Putin met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in Moscow on Wednesday and had a phone call with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev the following day.
Kocharian claimed that Lieutenant-General Rustam Muradov, the commander of Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in Karabakh, travelled to Baku to “escort the prisoners back to Armenia.”
Muradov, who reportedly arrived in Yerevan on board the Russian plane early on Friday, categorically denied that, however. “It was an ordinary working visit,” he told the Armenian newspaper “Hraparak.”
Asked to comment on the Armenian officials’ statements about the impending release of prisoners, Muradov said: “They are misleading the population.”
The Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement, brokered by Putin on November 9, calls for the unconditional release of all prisoners held by the conflicting sides. The Russian peacekeepers arranged several prisoner swaps in December and early this year.
A total of 69 Armenian POWs and civilians have been freed to date. More than 100 others are believed to remain in Azerbaijani captivity.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov again claimed on Thursday that all of them were captured after the truce accord took effect on November 10 and are therefore not covered by it. He said Baku regards them as “terrorists” and does not intend to release them.
More than 50 of the remaining POWs were captured in early December when the Azerbaijani army occupied the last two Armenian-controlled villages in Karabakh’s southern Hadrut district. They all are army reservists who were drafted from Armenia’s Shirak province during the six-week war.
Scores of their angry relatives blocked on Friday morning the roads leading to Shirak to demand an urgent meeting with Pashinian. Many of them gathered at Yerevan’s Erebuni airport late on Thursday after hearing reports about the impending release of their loved ones.
“No official at the airport bothered to answer our questions,” one of the protesters told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
“We are waiting to see when the country’s leader, our commander-in-chief, will agree to meet us. We won’t go to Yerevan anymore,” he said.
Relatives of other POWs and missing soldiers blockaded, meanwhile, the Defense Ministry compound in Yerevan. Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian and chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff, Lieutenant-General Artak Davtian, offered to receive their representatives.
The protesters rejected the offer, demanding that Harutiunian and Davtian emerge from the compound and talk to them on the spot.
They tried at one point to break into the compound but were stopped by riot police. The chief of the Armenian police, Vahe Davtian, arrived at the scene to talk to the protesters.
Pashinian’s government also faced strong criticism from the opposition. Edmon Marukian, the leader of the Bright Armenia Party (LHK), accused the government of botching the prisoner release in a failed attempt to score political points.
“This is yet another result of their inept and sloppy behavior which was coupled with their attempt to use this tragedy for a publicity stunt,” Marukian told reporters.