By Mark Dovich
In a rare joint statement Thursday, Armenia and Azerbaijan said they will exchange detainees for the first time in more than a year.
Baku will hand over 32 Armenian prisoners of war in exchange for two Azerbaijani soldiers and Yerevan’s support for the oil-rich country’s bid to host a major United Nations climate summit next year, the statement said.
Neither a timeframe nor the names of the detainees were immediately given, according to authorities in Armenia, the Azerbaijani soldiers are two conscripts who were detained in April after crossing into Armenia. Earlier this week, an appeals court converted the 20-year prison term given to one of them for killing an Armenian civilian before his capture to a life sentence.
The statement described the deal as the result of direct negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan without third-party mediation, though the agreement notably came just one day after James O’Brien, a senior State Department official, visited Azerbaijan for high-level talks he described as “positive and constructive.”
In addition, Yerevan and Baku said they “reaffirm their intention to normalize relations and negotiate a peace treaty based on respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity” and pledged to review “more confidence-building measures in the near future.”
The prisoners of war set to be freed are among the dozens of Armenians currently held in Azerbaijan. That includes eight former senior Nagorno-Karabakh officials who were detained during September’s mass exodus from the region to Armenia.
Last month, Azerbaijan for the first time sentenced one of the detainees, a 68-year-old civilian from Nagorno-Karabakh named Vagif Khachatryan, to 15 years in prison on war crimes charges. Khachatryan, who has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, is appealing his conviction.
Hours before the announcement of the prisoner swap, Azerbaijan sentenced a second Armenian in its custody, 40-year-old army reservist Gagik Voskanyan, to 18 years in prison on terrorism charges.
News of Thursday’s deal was quickly welcomed by the European Union, Turkey, and United States, among others.