Azerbaijan and Armenia have announced a prisoner exchange and several other measures intended to ‘build confidence’ in a move hailed as a stepping stone to a potential peace deal.
In a joint statement on Thursday, Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and Armenia’s Prime Minister’s Office suggested that there was ‘a historical chance to achieve a long-awaited peace in the region’.
According to the Azerbaijani side, the agreement was reached without the involvement of any third country. Since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, negotiations between the two countries have been mediated by either the EU and the US or by Russia. Prior to that, talks were mostly held under the multinational Minsk Group.
The announcement may mark the first time in the two countries’ post-independence history that Yerevan and Baku have reached an agreement without external mediation.
European Council President Charles Michel wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that he was ‘delighted to welcome a major breakthrough’ in Armenia-Azerbaijani relations, particularly the ‘unprecedented opening’ of political dialogue.
‘I now encourage the leaders to finalise the [Armenia-Azerbaijan] peace deal ASAP’, wrote Michel.
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller also welcomed the announcement, calling it ‘an important confidence-building measure’.
‘We commend Azerbaijani President Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan for their joint efforts to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful and prosperous future for the people of the South Caucasus’, wrote Miller.
The announcement came shortly after James O’Brien, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, visited Baku, where he met with Azerbaijan’s president. Earlier on Thursday, Aliyev announced that presidential elections would take place a year early.
O’Brien stated after his visit that the US would host peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers, Ararat Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov respectively, in Washington.
Mirzoyan affirmed on 8 December that he was ready to meet with Bayramov in Washington, but Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry has not yet responded to the invitation.
On Friday, the chair of Armenia’s parliamentary foreign relations committee stated that the exchange of prisoners would take place on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in ‘a matter of hours or days’.
Khandanyan also added that bilateral negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan had begun in ‘the last weeks’.
‘We are talking about a short period of time’, said Khandanyan.
Details of the agreement
The two countries agreed to exchange a total of 34 prisoners, 32 Armenians and two Azerbaijanis. Most of the Armenians were soldiers captured during clashes near Hadrut in December 2020, with six others captured at various times along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
According to a separate Azerbaijani statement, all had already served the majority of their sentences. They also emphasised that the list did not include detained officials from Nagorno-Karabakh, including former State Minister Ruben Vardanyan and former president Arayik Haratunyan. ‘Crucially, the released individuals do not and cannot include leaders of the so-called regime who committed war crimes and outrage on humanity against the Azerbaijani people’, they said.
They also emphasised that the list did not include Vagif Khachatryan, who was detained at the Lachin checkpoint earlier this year, and Alyosha Khosrovyan, who was captured during the 2020 war. Khachatryan is accused of participating in the 1992 Khojaly massacre, while Khosrovyan is accused of torturing Azerbaijani soldiers captured in 1992–1994.
The two Azerbaijani soldiers released were detained in April after crossing into Armenian territory. One was later charged with murdering a security guard at the Zangezur copper-molybdenum mine in Syunik Province, sentenced first to 20 years and then to lifetime imprisonment.
The shared statement also noted that Armenia had, as a gesture of goodwill, supported Azerbaijan’s bid to host the 29th session of the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP29) by withdrawing its own candidacy, while Azerbaijan had supported Armenia’s candidature for Eastern European Group COP Bureau membership.
The Armenian and Azerbaijani courts had released verdicts for two of the prisoners shortly before the exchange was announced.
On Wednesday, the sentence of Azerbaijani soldier Huseyn Akhundov, accused of murdering a security guard after entering Armenia in April, was extended from 20 years to life imprisonment after an appeal by the security guard’s family.
The following day, Gagik Voskanyan, an Armenian reservist captured near the Armenian town of Jermuk in 2023, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in Azerbaijan on a number of charges, including terrorism.
Armenian prisoners were last released by Azerbaijan in October 2022, through US mediation.
Source : OC Media