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Karabakh Peace Prospects Shot Down Together With Helicopter?

Mutual recriminations as helicopter downing mars efforts to rebuild dialogue between leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
By Lamiya Adilgizi, Arevik Sahakyan

When Azerbaijani troops shot down an Armenian military helicopter last week, it was recognised as a major incident by all sides – the first time a manned aircraft had been hit in 20 years of uneasy peace.

However, analysts differ on whether the strike will lead to renewed conflict or will not really disrupt an already moribund peace process.

The defence ministry in Baku said the Mi-24 gunship was one of a pair that were attacking Azerbaijani troop positions on the ground, prompting the missile launch that brought it down on November 12. The ministry referred to the aircraft as belonging to the armed forces of Armenia rather than those of Karabakh.

Armenian officials confirmed that all three  crewmembers were killed, and insisted that the helicopter belonged to Karabakh’s air force. They also insisted that it was inside the “line of contact” that forms both boundary and front line around Karabakh.

Azerbaijan does not recognise Karabakh’s claim to statehood, and hence does not acknowledge its claim to a separate airspace. An Armenian administration has controlled Karabakh since open hostilities ended in in 1994 with a truce but no peace deal. On November 13, the Azerbaijani defence ministry underlined its position that no flights were permitted over the “occupied territories”, a term that refers to Nagorny Karabakh plus adjoining districts also under Armenian control.

In response, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan flew to Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert by helicopter.

Levon Melik-Shahnazaryan, head of the Yerevan think-tank Voskanapat, said the Azerbaijani statement was a tacit admission that the helicopter was above Karabakh when it was hit – a fact, he claimed, was evident from calculations of the missile’s flight based on video footage.

The two Mi-24 gunships were taking part in joint military exercises involving the armed forces of Karabakh and Armenia. With a total of 47,000 personnel deployed, the exercises were a real show of force, although Karabakh defence minister Movses Hakobyan said they had nothing to do with the upsurge in front-line clashes over the summer, as they had been planned a year ago.

Armenia’s defence minister Seyran Ohanyan said other countries had been informed of the joint exercise in advance.

“This brutish behaviour will without any doubt get the response it deserves, even a somewhat disproportionate one,” he said.

The incident came at a time when the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan had only just held three meetings in as many months and affirmed a common determination to resolve the dispute over Karabakh through peaceful discussions. (See Reset in Azerbaijan-Armenia Talks Process? )Their renewed commitment to talks had a direct impact by reducing tensions on the ground, where weeks of clashes had left at least 25 dead and had raised concerns about a slide towards war.

The helicopter downing caused consternation in the international community, especially at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the main body working to resolve the conflict through its Minsk Group, composed of United States, Russian and French diplomats.

“A wider conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is in no one's interest. The sides should avoid further escalation and reject war as an option,” the US co-chair of the Minsk Group, James Warlick, said on his Twitter account on November 13.

Sabine Freizer, a senior fellow and Azerbaijan expert with the Atlantic Council, sees the incident as “the most dangerous point” since the 1994 ceasefire. 

“Increasingly there is a chance that threat misperception and tactical miscalculation could build up to a full-scale ‘war by accident’,” Freizer told IWPR. “The shooting down of the helicopter is likely to further increase tensions and violence unless the sides finally agree to confidence building measures along the line of contact and their border.”

Elnur Soltanov, an expert on politics and international security at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, does not agree that the incident will damage the prospects for renewed peace talks. In his view, “There is no process to be damaged. Therefore, not much will change.”

The head of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, Manvel Sargsyan, was similarly unconcerned about the implications, albeit for different reasons, arguing that Karabakh had been under such a prolonged existential threat that “there hasn’t been what you’d call an atmosphere of fear for a long time”.

The crash site has not yet been examined, and the bodies of the three crewmembers – Major Sergei Sahakyan, Lieutenant Azat Sahakyan and Senior Lieutenant Sargis Nazaryan of the Karabakh armed forces – have not been recovered.

Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artstrun Hovhannisyan said his country had “already stated that it is prepared for an international expert examination”.

The Armenian authorities have asked the OSCE and the International Committee of the Red Cross to facilitate access to the site, and they say Azerbaijani forces have been firing shots in the area to prevent this happening.

Hovhannisyan says access is crucial because “a study of the helicopter fragments will make it possible to confirm that it was not armed”.

“If Baku doesn’t allow international organisations to remove the bodies, no further comment will be necessary,” he added.

In Freizer’s view, “Disagreements between Azerbaijan and Armenia on whether or not it was armed demonstrate once again the need for more extensive international monitoring of the conflict region and the need for incident prevention mechanisms.”

Lamiya Adilgizi is an Azerbaijani journalist based in Istanbul. Arevik Sahakyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia. 

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