In an act with potentially perilous consequences for the South Caucasus' longest running military conflict, Azerbaijan on November 12 shot down a MI-24 helicopter that it claims belongs to Armenian forces stationed near the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline. Armenia, however, asserts that the helicopter belongs to breakaway Karabakh’s military forces.
Additional information, for now, is scarce. The Azerbaijani defense ministry alleged that the helicopter “violated the country’s airspace,” and had “attempted to attack positions of the Azerbaijani army near Agdam district.,” the pro-government news agency Trend reported.
In a statement posted only in Azeri, the defense ministry claimed that three crew members were killed. A second helicopter “managed to get away” from the line of fire, it alleged.
The commander who oversaw the operation, one “M. Muradov,” has been “awarded with valuable prizes and awards” by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov, the ministry said.
Armenian defense ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisian has refused to confirm reports that three crew members were killed, a Karabakhi news outlet reported.
In a statement, Armenia’s defense ministry claimed only that the helicopter was downed while taking part in a regular training exercise, and that Azerbaijan had continued with “intensive fire . . . in the direction of the event.” Details are still being determined, it said.
Karabakh’s Artsakh TV reported on November 11 that the region’s de-facto leader, Bako Sakian, had visited the training exercise (Unity-2014), but its de-facto official sites provided no coverage about the downed helicopter.
Yerevan’s anger, however, is plain. “The consequences of this unprecedented escalation will be very painful for the Azerbaijani side and will remain on the conscience of the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan,” stated Armenia’s defense ministry spokesperson, Artsrun Hovhannnisian, Public Radio of Armenia reported.
The Azerbaijani defense ministry, in a statement picked up by pro-government news agencies, earlier had alleged a pick-up in supposed Armenian violations of the cease-fire over the past day.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have spent a large part of 2014 hovering on the brink of all-out conflict, with an unprecedented number of violations of the 1994 cease-fire agreement that put six years of fighting on hold.
The violations had slowed after an August meeting by both Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country, with the US and France, oversees talks between the two sides.
Arguably, with NATO and the Ukrainian government reporting on November 12 that Russian tanks and troops have crossed into eastern Ukraine, Putin may now have other things on his mind.