Armenia has accused Azerbaijan’s military of capturing dozens of its troops, calling it a provocative move violating a ceasefire agreement that ended six weeks of fierce fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region last month.
The leader of the self-proclaimed republic of Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, made the accusation on Wednesday after Armenia’s Defense Ministry said it had lost contact with several military positions that had been supposed to be under its control as per the Russia-brokered ceasefire deal.
The ministry also announced that it had failed to locate the troops despite carrying out search operations in the region.
“Several dozen servicemen were taken hostage by Azeri forces in the direction of Ktsaberd Village, and the Defense Ministry is currently trying to figure out all the circumstances,” Harutyunyan said on his Facebook page.
Russia’s Interfax news agency cited Armenia’s Defense Ministry as saying later on Wednesday that Russian peacekeepers had helped get a number of Armenian troops released after they were encircled by Azeri forces.
The agency did not make it clear if they were the same troops who had been reported captured.
The accusation came shortly after Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed they had begun exchanging groups of prisoners of war as part of an “all for all” swap mediated by Moscow.
Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it has been occupied by ethnic Armenian separatists backed by Armenia since 1992, when they broke from Azerbaijan in a war that killed some 30,000 people.
The latest conflict erupted in late September.
After six weeks of deadly fighting in and around Karabakh, Yerevan and Baku eventually agreed on November 9 to end hostilities under a Moscow-brokered deal that secured territorial advances for Azerbaijan in Karabakh and seven surrounding districts.
The agreement was signed after the Azerbaijani army overwhelmed Armenian forces and threatened to advance on Karabakh’s main city of Khankendi, which Armenians have renamed Stepanakert after a 19th-century Bolshevik militant.
As part of the ceasefire, nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have been stationed along the Lachin corridor in Azerbaijan, a 60-kilometer route that links Khankendi to Armenia.
The truce, which was warmly welcomed as a victory in Azerbaijan, has prompted anger in Armenia, with protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Pashinyan has said he had no choice but to sign the agreement to prevent what he has called “total collapse.”
Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) announced last month that it had foiled an attempt by former officials to assassinate Pashinyan and to seize power following the contentious ceasefire deal.