Members of the Armenian armed forces during training exercises earlier this year. Photo: Narek Aleksanyan/Getty

Armenian Opposition Demands Probe of ‘Illegal’ Troop Withdrawal

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YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan must be prosecuted for handing over strategic areas along Armenia southeastern Syunik province to Azerbaijan shortly after last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the main opposition Hayastan alliance said on Friday, October 29.

Syunik borders the Zangelan and Kubatli districts southwest of Karabakh which were mostly recaptured by Azerbaijan during the six-week hostilities stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire last November.

Armenian army units and local militias were ordered in December to withdraw from the rest of those districts as well as territory located along the Soviet-era Armenian-Azerbaijani border which has never been demarcated due to the Karabakh conflict.

The troop withdrawal sparked angry protests from local government officials and ordinary residents of Syunik. They said they can no longer feel safe because Azerbaijani forces will be stationed dangerously close to their communities, including the provincial capital Kapan.

Opposition leaders in Yerevan likewise accused Pashinyan of hastily and illegally ceding those lands to Baku. But he insisted that “not a single inch” of Armenia internationally recognized territory was lost.

Pashinyan admitted personally ordering the pullout when he spoke in the Armenian parliament on Wednesday.

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“I was convinced that if such a decision is not made, military hostilities will break out there and we will have problems in Syunik,” he said, answering a question from a Syunik-born lawmaker affiliated with Hayastan.

The opposition bloc seized upon the remarks to demand that the Office of the Prosecutor-General launch criminal proceedings against the prime minister. The bloc’s parliamentary leader, Seyran Ohanian, reiterated opposition arguments that the November truce accord did not call for Armenian withdrawal from the Armenian-controlled parts of Zangelan and Kubatli.

“Nobody was allowed to issue an oral order to withdraw, especially from areas which would later become bones of contentions in [Armenian-Azerbaijani] border demarcation,” Ohanian told a news conference.

The former defense minister said Armenia should have at least retained control of strategic hills and roads in that border area.

The troop withdrawal left Azerbaijan in control of a 21-kilometer stretch of the main Armenian highway leading to Iran. Azerbaijani forces deployed there set up a checkpoint there in August before starting to demand hefty fees from Iranian trucks using the road.

The move caused serious disruptions in Armenia’s trade with Iran. Pashinyan’s government scrambled to speed up the reconstruction of an alternative Syunik highway bypassing the Azerbaijani checkpoint.

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