NATO Cancels Exercises over Azeri Ban on Armenian Troops

BRUSSELS (AFP/RFE-RL)–NATO announced the cancellation of military exercises–scheduled several months ago to take place on September 27 in Azerbaijan–after Baku said it did not want Armenian troops on its territory–a NATO spokesman’said on Monday.

The decision–taken by the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe US General James Jones–came after five officers of the Armenian Armed Forces were denied entry visas by the Azeri embassy in Tbilisi.

News of the exercise cancellation coincided with a meeting in Brussels between NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the visiting Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. Oskanian praised the decision taken by the NATO leadership–according to his press office. He at the same time regretted "the loss of an opportunity for regional cooperation."

PfP events–largely involving peace-keeping exercises–are organized and led by NATO commanders. Under the terms of the program–a host country not affiliated with the alliance cannot prevent any other partner state invited by NATO organizers from sending troops to its soil.

"We regret that the principle of inclusiveness could not be upheld in this case–leading to the cancellation of the exercise," NATO said in a separate statement.

Hundreds of people attended street protests in Baku over the past week against the expected arrival of Armenian officers. The Azeri media have joined in the chorus of condemnations by running blank pages and suspending broadcasts to get the message across.

On Friday–Azerbaijan’s parliament adopted a message sent to de Hoop Scheffer denouncing the initial inclusion of Armenian soldiers. Its position was endorsed by Aliyev the next day. "I do not want Armenian servicemen to arrive in Baku–and Azerbaijan will take necessary measures for it," he told reporters.

However–de Hoop Scheffer was quoted by an Armenian Foreign Ministry statement as telling Oskanian that Baku’s stance is "unacceptable" because it runs counter to its PfP commitmen’s.

The PfP exercises–codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2004–were due to bring together hundreds of troops from two dozen countries–including the United States. Most of the participants appeared to have already arrived at their venue near the Azeri capital.

In Yerevan–meanwhile–news of the Baku-bound Armenian officers’ early return home was greeted with relief by some people interviewed on the streets. "The Azeris’ refusal to let them in was wrong," said one middle-aged woman. "But the security of our guys would not have been ensured there. So I’m glad that they did not go."

"If they did such a thing in Hungary–imagine what they would do on their soil," she added in reference to last February’s gruesome murder of an Armenian army lieutenant by a fellow Azeri officer attending a NATO course in Budapest.

"What they did only harmed themselves–not us," said one man.

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