Uncovering the Mystery of the Kelbajar Murders

By Emil Sanamyan

Located between the districts of Mardakert and Vardenis, the former Kelbajar district has been under Armenian control since April 1993. Since the late 1990s, it has been resettled by Armenians, mostly displaced from Azerbaijani-controlled northern Karabakh. The remote, mountainous district has since been renamed Shahumian and its center – Karvachar.

Along with Karvachar, there are 14 settled villages in this new Shahumian district, with the total population of a few thousand. Many of the former Azerbaijani villages remain vacant or only sparsely populated. The district is connected by mostly dirt roads to the Mardakert district to its East, Vardenis district to its West and Kashatagh (former Lachin) district to its south.

The Line of Contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces runs to the north of the district, roughly following the Mrav Mountains. With just a single dirt track running through these mountains over the Omar Pass, the district is secured with fewer Armenian forces than most of the other stretches of the Line of Contact (LoC) with Azerbaijan. Unlike most other sections of the LoC, reports of cease-fire violations in Karvachar are rare. The local scenery, the ancient Dadivank and other churches, as well as nearby hot springs, serve as tourist attractions.

Yet, last month, the area was rocked by reports of Azerbaijani saboteurs, kidnapping, murder and a roadside ambush. Information gathered from mass media and social networks helped to uncover some of the circumstances that led to these incidents.

Dilgam Askerov at his mother’s grave in Kelbajar in 1999. Via Facebook

In 1999, a resident of the town of Shamkir (formerly Shamkhor) Dilgam Gardashkhan ogly Askerov, born in 1960, begins to take hiking trips to Karvachar, apparently walking through one of the many unguarded mountainous footpaths. A picture of Askerov next to his mother’s grave – Bagdat Rza kyzy Hasanova, who died in 1982 and is buried in the village of Shaplar, just outside the town of Kelbajar/Karvachar – dated 1999 was apparently taken by someone accompanying him; a shotgun rifle is seen in the frame. Sometime after, Askerov also tells Azerbaijani media about his trip.

According to his acquaintances, Askerov makes several more trips to Kelbajar in the early-to-mid 2000s.

Hasan Hasanov at a firing range last year. Hasanov’s Facebook

In a YouTube video published in 2010 (or before) and dated June 2007, he is walking around the area with a hunting rifle again. He appears alone this time. In the video, he notes the resettlement progress made at Karvachar and Nor Verinshen villages which, compared to his trip in 1999, he films from a distance. He mentions that he did not have a video camera during his past visits. He also films military barracks, the Sotk gold mine and other local infrastructure.

In a video dated September 2007, Askerov is seen with Shahbaz Jalal ogly Guliyev (born 1968) and this time they have AK machine guns with silencers that look identical to the ones NKR officials captured from them in July 2014. They make videos of Dadivank and other places, and grill kebabs.

From narcotics charges to hiking in Karabakh

On April 7, 2014 Ganja-based Kapaz TV reports that Askerov is charged with growing weed and selling it from his house in Shamkir. In a video, Askerov admits to growing but not selling weed. But by June 19, according to his son Kurdoglu, Askerov leaves his house in Shamkir. It is unclear how he avoided prosecution, but he must have used his connections in the Azerbaijani security services. His family claimed they thought he was leaving for Russia, where in the past he would go to work in the Perm province in the Urals.

Askerov and Guliyev in Baku in 2011. Qoroskop.com

It eventually emerged that Shahbaz Guliyev is married to a woman from the Perm area; his Odnoklassniki site has three friends, two of whom are from Perm and a third also from Russia. According to his brother Ilham, Guliyev leaves his house around June 18.

According to the NKR government, on June 29, Askerov, Guliyev and a third person cross into Kelbajar, acting “on orders from Azerbaijan’s intelligence services.”

In a July 2 video released by Yerkir.am and Past.info, Askerov, Guliyev and a third person identified by Azerbaijani media as Hasan Hasanov are seen grilling meat and preparing to drink vodka that they say they took from locals. Hasanov can be seen with a pistol and Guliyev with a carving knife. In his comments behind the camera, Askerov encourages Azerbaijani soldiers not to be afraid to come to Kelbajar and says they are teaching their new friend Hasan about the area. In a brief daytime video taken by Askerov, Guliyev and Hasanov are seen walking through an open, hilly area with machine guns, and approaching the main road with an Armenian sign pointing towards Karvachar.

In Hasanov’s social media profiles he claims to be a graduate of the Khan Nakhichevansky Military High School (1993-96) and Baku Higher Military School (1996-2000), which would make him a commissioned officer in the Azerbaijani military. But his employment in recent years is said to be with Globus Travel, a travel agency, and AzXeber.com, a news website. Hasanov’s facebook is full of anti-Armenian vitriol and nationalist postings. Curiously, there are no family pictures, but there are a number of apparently casual female “friends” located in Russia and Central Asia. Financially, Hasanov appeared to be fairly well off: if in October 2010 he is seen posing with a Russian Lada, by 2013 he is driving a used Mercedes valued at over $10,000. Hasanov is said to be born in 1978 in the village of Mehdili, now located on the Line of Contact in the Jebrail district. In November 2013, Hasanov published a video of his brief visit to the Azerbaijani-controlled portion of the ruined village of Mehdili. In the spring of 2012, Hasanov repeatedly shared and praised videos from Kelbajar made by Askerov, whom he called “ami” (uncle).

It is conceivable, that Hasanov was an operative of the Azerbaijani security services. Incidentally, his family members reportedly refused to discuss his professional background when asked in an RFERL Azerbaijani Service radio program.

Pages from Askerov’s passport – until recently he frequently crossed the border between Azerbaijan and Russia.

Kidnapping and murder

Sometime on the evening of July 4 or overnight, Smbat Tsakanyan (b. 1997) goes missing from his family’s remote farmhouse in Chumen (also known as Jomard, about 20-25 km from Karvachar), where he is alone at the time. A 2012 tourism profile available online notes that Chumen could be the least populated place in all of Karabakh, with just one family making a home there. As the family returns to the house on July 5, they and other locals begin searching for Tsakanyan, but according to official information the family, initially not suspecting any foul play, doesn’t go to police until 21:00 on July 7.

Smbat Tsakanyan

On July 8 around 14:00, according to an Epress.am report citing local sources, two Azerbaijanis are seen near Karvachar. Guliyev is detained, while the other, described as an older man, manages to flee. Epress.am also reports panic in the town of Vardenis (40km away), where rumors spread that “Azerbaijani saboteurs have poisoned the town’s water.” Helicopters have by now been engaged in search operations. Guliyev’s capture is first reported on July 10; photos of him, seized weapons, clothing items and an Azerbaijani flag are released. But in a later interview with RFERL, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan, who arrived in the Karvachar area as search operations were underway, noted that all saboteurs were captured between July 8 and 11.

On July 11, a Niva with civilian plates driven by Major Sargis Abrahamyan (b.1971) takes Karine Davtyan (b.1977), the wife of a local military commander from Vardenis to Karvachar. Around 32 km from Vardenis at about 16:00, between Sotk and Nor Karachinar, they are attacked. Abrahamyan is killed and Davtyan is seriously wounded. In a report about the incident the following day, officials say that an Azerbaijani attacker (inferred to be Hasanov) is also killed. Pictures of more captured weapons and supplies are shown. Epress.am cites an unconfirmed report that there may have been two more people in the Niva (who may have shot Hasanov). Davtyan is evacuated to a Yerevan hospital. In a statement on July 21, NKR officials suggest that Hasanov (whom they do not identify by name) attacked the Niva’s passengers alone out of suspected “ethnic prejudice.”

Karine Davtyan in hospital. Armenian Defense Ministry photo

On July 14, officials announce an end to anti-sabotage operations as of 13:00. Epress.am reports of an Azerbaijani’s arrest in Harur gorge (on the administrative border with Armenia, presumably not far from Sotk) around noon on July 14. A photo is released to Zhoghovurd newspaper of Askerov surrounded by Armenian soldiers. Later, a video shows Askerov brought by masked special forces to the office of an Armenian security official. Officials say that Guliyev and Askerov will not be treated as POWs, but as criminals. The Armenian defense ministry charges the Azerbaijani government with “hiring a criminal group” to engage in espionage on Armenian territory.

Judging by Ohanyan’s remarks, Askerov was detained on July 11 rather than on the 14th, possibly even before the Niva attack, but officials wanted to ascertain there were no other hostiles in the area before going public. Elkhan Nabiyev, a relative of Askerov, claimed that sometime after the July 11 shootout Askerov called Guliyev’s family to report that Guliyev was captured and Hasanov was killed (it is possible that Askerov was allowed to make the call, while already in Armenian custody). According to the relative’s theory, the call betrayed Askerov’s position and led to his capture.

Sargis Abrahamyan

Nabiyev further claimed that they planned to go to Kelbajar together with Askerov in August but that Askerov’s plans changed while Nabiyev was in the mountainous village of Hajikent, out of cellphone reach. By the time Nabiyev was able to check his messages, Askerov, Guliyev and Hasanov already crossed over into Karabakh. Nabiyev also claimed that in 2012, he and Askerov visited the Line of Contact in Mardakert district to “check on routes.”

On July 15 at about noon, officials reported finding Tsakanyan’s body in a forested area between Karvachar and Nor Manashid (Sinikilis) identified by either Guliyev or Askerov; it is determined that Tsakanyan had died from multiple gunshot wounds. According to some reports, the body was found at an Azerbaijani cemetery in Askerov’s native village of Chaplar, which is about 20km from Chumen, where Tsakanyan disappeared. Tsakanyan’s body is flown to Stepanakert for forensic examination and is buried in a closed casket in the village of Charektar on July 16.

Unanswered questions

Whatever was the mission pursued by Askerov, Guliyev and Hasanov, it began to fall apart following their kidnapping of the young man, leading to a massive search beginning several days later. The encounter with Tsakanyan could have been accidental. Tsakanyan may have remained alive as late as July 8, when the search for him began in earnest, or at least until the group reached the area where his body was found.

By July 8, eyewitnesses reported seeing two Azerbaijanis, presumably Askerov and Guliyev, with Guliyev captured and Askerov escaping. The third (presumably Hasanov) resurfaces only three days later in the attack on the Niva. To go down to the road and attack a random vehicle was an act of desperation that would only make sense for Hasanov, if he had already separated from his main guide, Askerov. Hasanov didn’t know the area and the only escape route by car would go through Armenia. According to the statement by NKR police on July 21, the Niva was attacked by one gunman, who subsequently resisted and was “neutralized.”

NKR officials have not yet formally confirmed Hasanov’s identity. Was Hasanov an Azerbaijani government operative? And if so, was the purpose of the mission intelligence gathering for potential future attacks?

Even after the Tsakanyan encounter, the group could have probably escaped before the search could even begin, but they decided to stay in the area. Why did they? What was the motivation for Tsakanyan’s murder? What were the circumstances of the attack on the Niva?

What is already clear is that Armenian authorities, aided by the local residents, managed to capture a group intimately familiar with the Karvachar area, who, if allowed to escape, could potentially wreak even greater havoc against the largely unarmed and unsuspecting population, as well as tourists, in this remote, sparsely populated area.

The capture of Askerov and Guliyev may have also played a role in the intensified tempo of Azerbaijani sabotage attacks on the Line of Contact in late July and early August – as they apparently tried to capture Armenian soldiers for possible exchange – that led to an unprecedented escalation in fighting, leaving seven Armenian and at least 15 Azerbaijani servicemen killed and many more wounded.

It was also likely a factor in the death of an Armenian civilian Karen Petrosyan.

According to RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service, on the morning of August 7, Petrosyan, a resident of an Armenian border village of Chinari in the northeastern Tavush province, walked into a nearby Azerbaijani border village of Agbulag unarmed and approached locals for tea and cigarettes. Later in the day, Azerbaijani military arrived in Agbulag, detained Petrosyan, dressed him in military boots and fatigues, and paraded him before the cameras as a ‘saboteur.’ Petrosyan was reported dead of “heart failure” the following day while being detained at the Azerbaijani army’s 3rd Corps headquarters in Shamkir.