Armenian Helicopter Crew Buried With Military Honors

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YEREVAN (Combined Sources) — The three pilots of an Armenian combat helicopter shot down by Azerbaijani forces near Nagorno-Karabagh received full military honors on Tuesday, November 25, as they were laid to rest in a state funeral attended by top military officials and hundreds of citizens.

Thousands of other Armenians filed past the remains of Major Sergey Sahakian, 38, Senior Lieutenant Sargis Nazarian, 25, and Lieutenant Azat Sahakian, 22, placed in closed coffins inside a Yerevan church on Monday. Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, led a requiem service there in the presence of President Serge Sargisian and other Armenian leaders.

“We are proud of having such soldiers,” Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said in a speech delivered at Yerevan’s Yerablur military cemetery during the funeral. “Eternal glory to the heroes, to the Armenian army guaranteeing our security!” he added.

The commander of Karabagh’s army, Gen. Movses Hakobian, also attended the funeral. Hakobian gave relatives of the three officers medals that were posthumously awarded to them by Bako Sahakian, the Karabagh president.

Sahakian decorated them during the weekend hours after the Karabagh Defense Army announced that it has retrieved “the corpse of one of the crew members, the remains of the two other pilots and some necessary parts of the helicopter” downed in the Aghdam district east of Karabagh on November 12. The army said its commandos reached the helicopter’s wreckage lying in a no man’s land in a “special operation” that left at least two Azerbaijani soldiers dead. It said they neutralized heavy gunfire from nearby Azerbaijani army positions aimed at preventing the recovery of the bodies.

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The Azerbaijani military denied suffering any casualties in the area. It claimed that the Armenian side did not gain access to the helicopter crash site and will hand “other remains” to the families of the dead pilots.

The Army sought to disprove the Azerbaijani allegations with aerial images of the site purportedly taken before and after the operation. It also demonstrated, in a short video footage, the body of one of the crew members that was apparently not burned to ashes after an Azerbaijani shoulder-launched rocket hit the Mi-24 gunship.

The Defense Ministry in Baku had repeatedly rejected international mediators’ calls for Azerbaijan to give the Armenian side “humanitarian access” to the wreckage. It accused the US, Russian and French co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group of adopting a pro-Armenian stance.

Baku says that the helicopter was downed after attacking its frontline positions. The Armenian side strongly denies that, saying that the Mi-24 did not cross the frontline and carried no live ammunition. It has also pledged a strong retaliation for the incident that has raised fresh rears of another Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Karabagh.

On November 19, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs released a statement expressing “deep concern” over the inaccessibility of the crash site of the helicopter. They had released a statement on November 12, expressing “serious concern” over the attack. The co-chairs fell short of unequivocally condemning the attack as an act of aggression by Azerbaijan, instead opting to address both countries.

The downed helicopter was on a training flight as part of joint Armenia-Artsakh military drills in the area. The “Unity 2014” exercises involved more than 30,000 troops, 3,000 armored vehicles, artillery, and air defense units, according to the Artsakh Defense Ministry website.

Armenian Assembly, Caucus Members Cry Foul

“The [Armenian] Assembly strongly condemns Azerbaijan’s blatant cease-fire violation and calls upon the Administration and Congress to take strong action to ensure the safety and security of Artsakh’s citizens,” stated Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny moments after reports reached Washington.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) was quick to strongly condemn the attack. “The downing of an Armenian helicopter today is an indefensible aggressive action that threatens to undermine the fragile ceasefire and plunge the region back into violence,” he said. “Azerbaijan must immediately cease all such attacks and provocations and commit to concrete progress in the Minsk Group talks,” Royce said.

Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) likewise condemned the incident. “I am outraged and saddened by the Azerbaijani attack on the Nagorno Karabagh helicopter engaged in a training flight,” he said. “This is another instance of aggression by the Azerbaijani government towards Nagorno Karabagh and Armenia and represents an escalation in their violent actions that continue to have a destabilizing impact on the region.”

Pallone, who has travelled to Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh on several occasions and knows the region and its people very well, called on the White House to step forward. “There is no longer any question that President Obama must take action to discourage Azerbaijan from pursuing such violent aggression and to demonstrate our commitment to peace and stability,” he said. “I encourage President Obama to formally condemn this deadly attack.”

Furthermore, Pallone called for the “cessation of any military assistance to Azerbaijan and the strengthening of section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which restricts aid to Azerbaijan based on its aggression toward Nagorno Karabagh and Armenia. It is time for both the President and Congress to ensure that US law once again holds Azerbaijan accountable for its violent actions,” he stated. “The families of those who were killed and all of Nagorno Karabagh’s citizens remain in my thoughts and prayers,” Pallone stated.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), a rising voice in the Armenian Caucus, also expressed her dismay at Azerbaijani behavior. “I am deeply troubled by the latest evidence of Azerbaijan’s continued aggression with their attack on an apparently unarmed helicopter,” she said. “The people in Nagorno-Karabagh deserve and desire peace, but Azerbaijan’s disregard for the 1994 cease fire threatens both sides with conflict.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), a steadfast defender of NK, rightfully recognized the need for Azerbaijan to be held “accountable for engaging in violence and not in peaceful negotiations,” via his Twitter account. Given the events of this year, and the recent death of three Karabagh pilots, if the international community, particularly the OSCE, United States, and United Kingdom, do not directly address Azerbaijani intransigence at the negotiating table and condemn this military act, then the likelihood of renewed war in the South Caucasus will near certainty.

The incident also caught the attention of the international press corps, as questions regarding the attack were raised during the State Department Daily Press Briefing on November 13. Unfortunately, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s response fell short of condemning the attack. “I don’t have any analysis of the exact events on the ground,” Psaki said to a reporter’s question. “We’ve seen the same reports. There are obviously comments and claims from both sides, but I don’t have any analysis beyond that.”

The reporter continued to seek clarification, stating, “Azerbaijan shooting an Armenian vessel, then it’s pretty clear which party is violating the ceasefire.”

Psaki responded, stating “We understand there are views by both sides, but I don’t have any comment from the U.S. Government on it.”

(RFE/RL contributed to this report.)