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.
Taking protesters on a road trip has become a favorite crowd-control technique for the Azerbaijani police. After treating the participants in a March 10 rally in Baku to a dose of rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons, the police drove a group of detained demonstrators tens of miles away from the capital city and dumped them in the middle of nowhere.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Khadija Ismayilova, one of those detained for hours by police and then taken for the ride into deepest Gobustan, said that she was able to call her friends, who followed the police bus and picked up the detainees. “I hid my phone and did not give it to the police,” Ismayilova said. (Ismayilova also has worked for EurasiaNet.org.)
Army officials have tried to explain several of the conscripts’ deaths as accidents or suicides. Relatives, gathering in Baku's Fountain Square with photos of the dead soldiers, angrily have rejected such claims, and demand justice.
The stage is set for another protester-police confrontation in the Azerbaijani capital. Activists plan to gather in downtown Baku on January 12 to condemn the recent death of an army conscript, Private Ceyhun Qubadov, and to raise awareness about non-combat deaths in the Azerbaijani military.
As of January 11, over 13,600 Facebook users had indicated that they would go to the event, but it is unclear if the offline rally will be a wide as the online one.
Azerbaijan’s state machinery and pro-government media have been put in motion in response to the Facebook-organized event. The Interior Ministry said that any unsanctioned rally would be prevented, which in Azerbaijani police parlance usually translates into “Demonstrators will be beaten, arrested and fined.”
To keep Baku's glamorized downtown protest-free, municipal officials do not allow rallies in the heart of the city, but the demonstrators nonetheless plan to gather in the central Fountain Square.
On January 11, pro-government media also released a statement from the deceased soldier’s mother, who requested that her son’s death not be used for political reasons and spoke against the rally. “I trust in the Azerbaijani state, its President Ilham Aliyev and hope that . . . all the culprits will be punished,” said Samira Qubadova.
Baku has said it before and now it says it again: Azerbaijan will not become a launching pad for an Israeli attack on Iran, so, naysayers, check your sources.
On December 2, the British Sunday Times ran a story on supposed plans by Tel-Aviv to use Azerbaijani bases to send off terminator drones into Iran if there is an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites and if Tehran moves to respond to it. The drone fleet would lay to waste Iran’s missile system before the Islamic Republic can pull out its guns, the paper said, citing unnamed sources.
In response, Azerbaijan claimed that The Sunday Times was essentially delirious. “Baku will never let anyone use its territory for an attack on our neighbors,” asserted foreign ministry spokesperson Elman Abdulayev, ANSPress.com reported.
Azerbaijan’s relations with fellow Muslim neighbor may be less than neighborly, but since Iran is home to millions of ethnic Azeris, Baku repeatedly has said it would never get pulled into a conflict with Iran.
With Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's much-anticipated Kazan pow-wow with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan just days away, one senior Azerbaijani politician has a message he's eager to share with you: Might makes right.
And let's not forget economic muscle. Armenia can invest all it wants in its economy, Gurbanli claimed, but it will never compare with hydrocarbon-rich Azerbaijan. Why? As News.az paraphrased it: "The reason is the dynamic development of Azerbaijan and the economic strength of our country."
The timing of Gurbanli's observations is not accidental. The Army Day display comes a day after the Kazan summit, an event at which Azerbaijan, conceivably, intends to parade its diplomatic might as well. Some analysts have gone into orbit over expectations for the summit, characterized as everything from a last chance for Karabakh peacemaking to a chance for a mega-breakthrough.
But in this macho match, Armenia has its own words of warning. Last week, the deputy commander of Armenia's air force announced that Armenia has manufactured its own "quite serious unmanned aerial vehicles" that will let it, "like developed NATO countries," make "targeted strikes on any enemy target, economic facility and the like."
Azerbaijan on March 4 kick-started the manufacture of unmanned aircraft, most probably to peek into the goings-on in Armenia and Armenian-guarded, breakaway Nagorno Karabakh.
Defense officials yesterday updated Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on their progress with the domestic production of Israeli-designed drones. The two models, Orbiter 2M and Aerostar, both manufactured by a local company, AZAD Systems Co., can cruise for five and 12 hours at altitudes of six and 10 kilometers, respectively.
Armenia, which occasionally exchanges gunfire with Azerbaijan, in the past has complained about Baku reportedly flying drones over disputed Karabakh.
Drones have become a popular defense toy elsewhere in the South Caucasus, too. Some two months before the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, a Russian jet shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance aircraft that was hovering over breakaway Abkhazia. Since the war, Moscow has offered to sell Abkhazia Russian-made drones.
The Azerbaijani models, financed by a $3.12-billion defense budget, may not have attack capabilities, but their presence similarly promises to add tensions to an atmosphere already charged with war rhetoric.
The $3.1 billion in requested military spending is almost one billion larger than the entire national budget of Azerbaijan’s cash-strapped arch-rival Armenia. Shaken by an economic crisis, Armenia may be hard-pressed to match oil-rich Azerbaijan’s defense spending, but few doubt that Yerevan will try.
“Gunpowder is an agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted,” American writer Ambrose Bierce wrote. Neither guns nor troublesome conflicts are in short supply in the South Caucasus, as the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia displayed. Baku said many times that if Armenia does not surrender the occupied Azerbaijani territories, Azerbaijan will take them by force. Does the increased military spending somehow fit into that option? So far, the answers are few.
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