YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The Armenian military will do its best to prevent a fresh upsurge of fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone during the upcoming European Games in Baku, Armenia’s First Deputy Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan said on Tuesday.
Tonoyan also warned Azerbaijan against escalating tensions along the “line of contact” around Karabakh and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border after the Olympic-style games scheduled for June 12-28.
“Olympic games will be held in Baku and Armenian forces will display restraint until their end,” he told Tert.am in an interview. “They are already showing restraint now, which is evident and visible. We are not provoking [skirmishes] or escalating the situation.”
The European Games, the first ever multi-sport event of its kind, are expected to attract thousands of athletes from around wider Europe. After months of deliberations Armenia decided in March to also take part in them with two dozen athletes.
The National Olympic Committee’s decision, apparently dictated by the Armenian government, followed another escalation of deadly fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. U.S., Russian and French mediators effectively blamed Azerbaijan for the escalation in January.
Tension on the frontlines appears to have eased significantly in early April. The armed forces of Armenia and Karabakh have reported no combat casualties since then.
Some Armenian observers attribute this relative calm to the Baku games, saying that the Azerbaijani leadership is anxious not to scare away foreign sporting delegations with talk of a renewed Karabakh war.
Tonoyan acknowledged the current “low intensity” of armed incidents in the conflict zone, suggesting that it may result from international pressure on Baku or dozens of casualties reportedly suffered by the Azerbaijani army in the first quarter of this year. “But I don’t exclude and I even think it’s quite possible that they are using this period to regroup their forces and prepare new provocations,” he said.
Addressing Azerbaijani special army forces late last month, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov announced the successful completion of “the first stage” of military operations against the Armenians. “Now, we have a more crucial stage ahead — the second stage, which is to force the enemy to withdraw unconditionally from occupied Azerbaijani lands by dealing decisive and crushing blows to the enemy,” he reportedly said.
“All of us must be ready for [the corresponding] order of the supreme commander-in-chief,” added Hasanov. He would not say when President Ilham Aliyev might issue such an order.
Tonoyan also spoke of ongoing Azerbaijani “preparations for hostilities.” “Will they opt for full-scale hostilities or carry on with the tactic of gradual expansion of local operations? Both scenarios are possible and we are prepared for both scenarios,” he told Tert.am.
Tonoyan warned in that regard that Baku will risk more territorial losses should it act on its threats to reconquer Karabakh and Armenian-controlled districts surrounding it. “Who says that the existing security zone formed around Nagorno-Karabakh is good enough for us?” he said. “Who thinks so? We think that given the extent of Azerbaijan’s current armament, it’s not good enough for us anymore.”