Armenian Soldier Killed in Fresh Border Incident
An incident in which Azerbaijani troops killed an Armenian soldier close to the border between the two countries has sparked fresh calls for mediators to work on confidence-building measures.
On October 22, troops on the Azerbaijani side of the border opened fire on a vehicle travelling along a road between the towns of Berd and Ijevan in the Tavush region of northeast Armenia. The vehicle was carrying soldiers returning to their posts, and one of them, Private Garik Poghosyan, was killed. Three other conscripts were injured.
Ten days earlier, Hayk Kosakyan, a 29-year-old civilian, was wounded by gunfire from the Azerbaijani side while he was out working in fields belonging to the village of Nerkin Karmiraghbyur. Hit in the left side, he was taken to hospital in the town of Berd.
Open war between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces ended in 1994 with the ceasefire that halted the Nagorny Karabakh war. No peace deal was signed, however, and negotiations on conflict settlement and on Karabakh’s future status, mediated by the OSCE’s Minsk Group, have made little progress. The Armenian administration in control of Nagorny Karabakh regards itself as independent, but has not won international recognition, and Azerbaijan continues to claim sovereignty.
Troops face each other along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as along the “line of control” that separates the hostile armed forces around Karabakh. Exchanges of gunfire over these front lines are frequent, and each side generally accuses the other of shooting first. (See Gunfire as Extension of Politics on Azeri-Armenian Border.)
On October 17, OSCE monitors were forced to call off an inspection after Azerbaijani troops fired at Armenian positions near Hadrut in Karabakh.
The Armenian defence ministry told IWPR that the Azerbaijanis had broken the ceasefire nearly 8,000 times between January and July, resulting in the deaths of three soldiers and ten injuries.
George Tabakyan, founder of the Sahman (Border) NGO, which runs agricultural, educational and cultural projects in villages along Armenia’s frontier, described the precarious conditions in which people live their lives there.
“They [Azerbaijanis] are putting pressure on the residents of border villages to force them to leave their homes. They are still living there, but at any time their homes, their children’s playgrounds and the schools they attend might come under fire,” Tabakyan told IWPR. “Over these 20 years, people in frontier villages have learned to be cautious and to know which areas are is dangerous and which are safe, and where they can hide from bullets.”
Kosakyan, who comes from the village of Navur, told IWPR that Azerbaijan soldiers deliberately shot at him and two companions while they were out picking grapes.
“They fired at our car from Azerbaijani positions and hit me. I was the first to get out. I knew there was often shooting in that place, but the last time I’d gone there, things were quiet,” he said. “Since grapes don’t grow in Navur, we’d come to pick them in Nerkin Karmiraghbyur. That’s how we ended up under fire from the Azerbaijanis.”
Some 1,160 people live in the village Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, most working as farmers and livestock herds. This border area is more fertile than most parts of Armenia, but most of it lies empty because locals are afraid to stray too close to the Azerbaijani lines.
“People try to make ends meet by working in the fields. But there’s never a guarantee they won’t come under fire,” Manvel Kamendatyan, who heads the village administration, told IWPR.
Almost every house in the village bears the scars of bullets, and local children know they have to keep close to walls when they are out, and hide in the basement if they hear shooting. In such circumstances, many villagers have left to seek better lives elsewhere.
“Every year, seven or eight people from our village go abroad to earn money. Many of them want to go and resettle their whole families in other places, but they aren’t able to,” Kamendatyan said.
Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute, says that outbreaks of shooting typically coincide with events at political level, such as Minsk Group meetings.
“With this incident, I’d look for a parallel in the presidential election in Azerbaijan,” he said, referring to the October 9 polls won by the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev.
Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the Minsk Group should try to build greater trust between the two sides by installing telephones to allow army officers on either side to contact one another when incidents happened. (See Civilian Deaths Underline Armenia-Azerbaijan Tensions for one recent case where a fatality seemed avoidable.)
“Azerbaijan constantly refuses to take a constructive approach to this problem,” Hovhannisyan told IWPR.
In Azerbaijan, analysts said Armenian calls for more mediation and better communication were merely a ploy to cement the status quo on the ground, in other words Armenian control over Karabakh and neighbouring districts.
“People are being killed on the front line because the conflict is still going on,” Farhad Mammadov, director of the presidential Centre for Strategic Studies, told IWPR. “The Armenians want to freeze this conflict. People are dying and will continue to die because no agreement has been signed.”
Most experts doubt that the Minsk Group, which is chaired jointly by Russia, the United States and France, has the leverage it would need to stop armed forces on either side from firing at one another.
According to Iskandaryan, “The Minsk Group mediators are trying to persuade the two sides to come to a mutual understanding. They are trying to maintain the status quo and the state of parity so that the war doesn’t start again. However, parity will not stop the shootings on the border, so such incidents are sadly going to continue.”
Lilit Arakelyan is a reporter for www.medialab.am in Armenia. IWPR’s Azerbaijan country director, Shahin Rzayev, provided additional reporting from Baku.