EU, US welcome release of 5 more Armenian POWs by Azerbaijan

By Mark Dovich

Azerbaijan freed five more Armenian prisoners of war on Thursday, Armenia’s National Security Service announced, taking the total number of Armenian detainees released since the end of the 2020 Karabakh war to about 155.

“We welcome this action as a step toward normalizing relations” between Yerevan and Baku, the NSS said in a statement.

The five men range in age from 23 to 32, according to the NSS, with four of them being from Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city. The fifth man is from Vanadzor, the country’s third largest city.

The five men’s release came just over a week after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev held talks in Brussels that mediator and European Council President Charles Michel described as “open and productive.”

Reacting to the news on Twitter, Michel noted it was the first time Baku handed over POWs to Yerevan directly, without third party mediation, something he said was “to the credit” of both governments.

“Addressing all outstanding humanitarian issues is a key priority,” he added.

Michel previously said he had “stressed to Azerbaijan the importance of further release of Armenian detainees” at last week’s Brussels summit.

Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price and Toivo Klaar, the EU’s special representative for the South Caucasus, each wrote on Twitter they “welcome” the detainees’ handover.

A number of Armenians captured by Azerbaijan during or shortly after the 2020 Karabakh war remain in Azerbaijan. Most have been convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Before Thursday, Yerevan and Baku put the number of Armenian POWs at around 40, but several Armenian human rights lawyers have cast doubt on those figures, saying the real number of Armenians held in Azerbaijan is higher.

The Russia-brokered ceasefire that ended six weeks of large-scale hostilities in and around Karabakh says “an exchange of prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons and bodies of the dead is to be carried out.”

Since the weekend, Armenia and Azerbaijan have traded near-daily accusations of violating that ceasefire, with each side blaming the other for opening fire at military positions across the border.

Armenia’s Defense Ministry said one Armenian soldier was killed Monday evening in a clash between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops “in the eastern part of the border zone.”

Azerbaijan has not reported any combat losses since early last month, when it launched an attack on Karabakh Armenian positions that left at least two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier dead.

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