The Armenian military said Thursday that six of its troops have been taken prisoner by neighbouring Azerbaijan, an incident that further exacerbates tensions between the two ex-Soviet nations in the wake of an outbreak of hostilities over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry claimed that the Armenian soldiers were seized early Thursday when they attempted to cross the border and place mines on supply routes leading to the Azerbaijani positions.
Armenian authorities insisted that the soldiers were captured on Armenia’s side of the border while conducting engineering works, and demanded their immediate release.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told a government meeting that the soldiers were planting a minefield with warning signs on Armenian territory near the border.
The U.S. expressed concern at the incident, and called on both sides to resolve it swiftly and peacefully.
“We also continue to call on Azerbaijan to release immediately all prisoners of war and other detainees, and we remind Azerbaijan of its obligations under international humanitarian law to treat all detainees humanely,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
“The United States considers any movements along the nondemarcated areas of the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan to be provocative and unnecessary,” he added. “We reject the use of force to demarcate the border and call on both sides to return to their previous positions and to cease military fortification of the nondemarcated border and the emplacement of landmines.”
The capture of the Armenian soldiers comes as the South Caucasus neighbours trade angry accusations over the demarcation of their border. Armenia has accused Azerbaijani troops of intrusion and Azerbaijan has denied it.
More than 6,000 people were killed last fall in the six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within Azerbaijan but was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994.
The hostilities ended with a Russia-brokered peace deal in November allowing Azerbaijan to reclaim control over large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas, which Armenia-backed separatists controlled for more than 25 years.
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