STEPANAKERT (RFE/RL) — Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabagh’s former top military commander, received a hero’s welcome from hundreds of supporters in Stepanakert on Sunday as he returned to Karabagh after years of self-imposed exile.
Babayan, who headed the Karabagh Armenian army from 1993-1999, travelled to Karabagh following a series of statements criticizing the Armenian military response to the April 2 Azerbaijani offensive.
The hardline general was greeted by about a thousand people when he laid flowers at a Stepanakert memorial to Karabagh Armenians killed during the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. The crowd, quite large by Karabagh standards, then escorted him to his old apartment, applauding and chanting “Samvel!” The impromptu procession blocked traffic through major streets in the Karabagh capital.
“I will do everything in my power to ensure that your security is properly protected,” Babayan told the supporters at the war memorial. But he did not clarify how he will do that, again insisting that he has no political ambitions.
Speaking to journalists, Babayan said he is ready to hold “discussions” with Karabagh’s political and military leaders. But he stressed that no meetings with them have been scheduled yet.
Babayan, 51, became the unrecognized republic’s most powerful man after a Russian-mediated truce stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 1994. He was arrested in 2000 and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly masterminding a botched attempt on the life of Arkady Ghukasian, the then Karabagh president.