A land mine reportedly killed an Azerbaijani officer and wounded several ethnic Armenian officials and a Russian peacekeeper in Nagorno-Karabakh on November 23, in the latest reminder of lingering obstacles to identifying the dead two weeks after a cease-fire between archfoes Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Around 2,000 Russian troops moved into areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh earlier this month as part of the Moscow-brokered truce that ended six weeks of heavy fighting in the 30-year-old conflict that is thought to have killed thousands.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced the land-mine incident.
It said a group of its peacekeepers, Azerbaijani troops, ethnic Armenians from the area’s de facto leadership, and International Committee of the Red Cross representatives were searching for the bodies of missing soldiers in the Tartar district northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh when the mine exploded.
An Azerbaijani officer died in the blast, near the community of Madagiz, four emergency-situations officials from the breakaway ethnic Armenian side were lightly injured, and the Russian peacekeeper taken to a Baku hospital for treatment.
There was no initial confirmation from the Azerbaijani or Armenian side.
Azerbaijan has consistently refused to report military casualties since the fighting flared up on September 27 and quickly escalated into an Azerbaijani offensive.
Baku’s forces retook swaths of territory controlled by ethnic Armenians for decades but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The cease-fire that went into effect on November 10 left most of those gains under Baku’s control and mandated that ethnic Armenian forces withdraw from all seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh in what was seen by many Armenians as a national defeat.
Yerevan announced on November 23 that it continued the handover of around 120 towns, villages, and settlements in the area.
Families on both sides of the conflict have complained of a lack of information about soldiers missing and in many cases believed to have been killed in combat.
Yerevan has announced the discovery or handover of the bodies of around 350 soldiers in the last several days.
But in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, family members gathered outside the Defense Ministry on November 23 to demand information about the whereabouts of dozens of troops still missing.
“We come here so a representative of a state body — whether a minister or a military man — comes and gives us an answer so we learn at least some information — what’s happening,” said one of the women seeking information about her son. “We understand that there was a war, but they ignore us — all of us parents.”
Azerbaijani families have also complained of similar official failures, exacerbated by a culture of state secrecy in the tightly controlled country of around 10 million people, with some families appealing on social media for answers.
The district of Agdam was handed over on November 20.
Ethnic Armenian forces are slated to hand over two more districts in the next week, with thousands more residents likely to flee, in many cases taking all their belongings and torching buildings in the process.
Karvachar (which Azeris call Kelbacar), wedged between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, was slated for handover after a weeklong delay on November 25. The district of Kashatagh (which Azeris call Lachin), west of Nagorno-Karabakh, is scheduled for handover by December 1.
As the withdrawal continues by ethnic Armenians who have in many cases lived for decades or generations in the lands, a path to a permanent peace still appears fraught.
Two of the most influential regional powers in the Caucasus, Russia and Turkey, are said to be quietly disagreeing over the possible role of Turkish peacekeepers as part of the cease-fire.
Russia has extensive relations with both countries but provides security guarantees to Armenia, while Turkey is a staunch Azerbaijani ally with longtime animosities with Yerevan.
Many analysts suggested Moscow won a major concession in the cease-fire through the insertion of peacekeeping troops that give it boots on the ground in the strategic and volatile South Caucasus.
Previous Russian “peacekeeping” missions in breakaway regions of Georgia and Moldova have remained despite local opposition.
Reuters quoted an unnamed Turkish source as saying on November 23 that Ankara and Moscow are now in disagreement over monitoring the Armenian-Azerbaijani cease-fire.
In addition to Russia’s peacekeepers on the ground, the truce called for a remote monitoring center staffed by Turkey and Russia in the region.
But Turkish authorities are reportedly pushing for their own, independent peacekeeping presence to project influence.
Their Russian counterparts, including senior officials who visited Yerevan and Baku over the weekend, are said to oppose such a Turkish presence.