Religious Leaders Call for Sniper Withdrawal in Karabagh


YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — The top religious leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia have called for a withdrawal of snipers from Karabagh frontlines as a means to stop bloodshed amid more reported casualties in the conflict zone.

Russia’s Patriarch Kirill read out the statement that he made jointly with Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and Azerbaijan’s top Shia Muslim leader, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, at the end of a trilateral meeting in Yerevan held as part of a summit of top clerics from post-Soviet countries.

Armenia, as well as international mediators, have repeatedly called for a bilateral withdrawal of snipers in order to reduce deadly ceasefire violations reported along the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” on a regular basis. Each side blames the other.

The military authorities in Armenia and Karabagh reiterated their readiness to withdraw snipers from the frontline positions also following the reported deaths of two Armenian soldiers near Karabagh on November 19 and 20 by what Stepanakert described as sniper fire from Azerbaijani army positions. They stressed, however, that they cannot do so unilaterally.

At the same time, the military in Armenia vowed to retaliate to discourage further sniper activity in the conflict zone. Karabagh’s ethnic Armenian army reported seven killed or wounded in the Azeri army in the past week, describing the casualties as resulting from their troops’ “punitive actions.” Azerbaijan has confirmed only one death.

Talking to media at the weekend President Serge Sargisian underscored that the responsibility for future losses in the Azerbaijani army lies entirely with Azerbaijan’s authorities. Sargisian also attended the Monday proceedings of the religious summit in Yerevan, calling for a Karabagh conflict settlement to be achieved “through contacts, negotiations and cooperation, rather than through the escalation of tensions and threats.”

“We were ready to stretch our hand of friendship first even at the time when we weren’t sure that we would get an adequate answer,” said Sargisian, reaffirming Armenia’s commitment to solve the conflict peacefully, through negotiations being mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group.

Sargisian also warned against giving the conflict an ethnic dimension and pitting the different predominant religions in the two states,that is Christianity and Islam, against each other.

In this context, the Armenian leader also called inadmissible destroying historical, cultural and spiritual monuments under the guise of religious differences.

“In front of this prominent audience, on behalf of the Republic of Armenia, I reaffirm our commitment to conserve and, if necessary, restore all such values,” Sargisian said.

The Armenian leader had left the premises before the floor was given to Azerbaijan’s top Shia cleric, who also addressed the Karabagh issue in his speech. Russia’s Patriarch Kirill explained that the Armenian president had other scheduled meetings and could not stay till the end of the meeting.

(Later, the president’s press office reported that Sargisian received Pashazade and Karekin at his office and welcomed the assistance of the two in the matter of finding a solution through dialogue.)

In his remarks at the summit referring to conflicts, Pashazade said that “millions of people have to live as refugees” in the former Soviet space, including in the Caucasus.

“We fully support the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group and the presidents of our states. At the same time, we have to say that, unfortunately, until today the United Nations Security Council resolutions [on the Nagorno Karabagh conflict] have not been fulfilled and the longstanding efforts of the Minsk Group co-chairs have not yielded tangible results,” said Pashazade.

Armenia-backed ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh broke free of Baku’s control following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Baku’s military response against the mostly Armenian-populated region triggered three-year-long hostilities that were halted due to a Russia-brokered ceasefire.

The war and earlier ethnic tensions in Azerbaijan and Armenia displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The military phase of the conflict also resulted in ethnic Armenians remaining in control of most of the enclave as well as some surrounding territories.

Negotiations since then mediated by the American, Russian and French co-chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group have resulted in little progress in resolving the dispute.

The religious leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia already issued a joint declaration in April 2010 when the Armenian pontiff paid a landmark visit to Baku to attend a summit of religious leaders from around the world. Then, they, too, voiced support for the long-running efforts to resolve the Karabagh conflict and condemned “acts of vandalism” committed in the conflict zone.