YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The ethnic Armenian armed forces of Mountainous Karabagh Republic (MKR) ended on Wednesday week-long large-scale exercises–which the MKR leadership said highlighted their ability to fend off possible military action by Azerbaijan.
Hundreds of troops–backed by tanks–heavy artillery–and helicopter gunships firing live rounds–practiced defensive and offensive operations at a training ground not far from the Armenian-Azeri line of contact east of Karabagh.
The war games–which will be evaluated by top military officials on Thursday–followed a familiar scenario–with the Karabagh army fighting back an enemy assault and then going on the counteroffensive. They also involved a rare call-up of local army reservists who also took in the simulated fighting.
Armenia’s Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian and the chief of army staff–Colonel-Lieutenant Mikael Harutiunian–monitored the proceedings along with the leadership of MKR. "At first glance–everything is alright," Sarkisian told reporters.
Armenian and Karabagh officials insisted that the exercises are not connected with Azerbaijan’s renewed threats to win back Karabagh by force or aimed at affecting the ongoing peace talks mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Sarkisian claimed that President Ilham Aliyev and other Azeri leaders make such threats for "propaganda purposes."
Sarkisian also said he looks forward to Aliyev’s meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House which is scheduled for April 28. "I am confident that the president of the United States will urge Aliyev to resolve the conflict by peaceful means," he said.
MKR President Arkady Ghukasian–for his part–remained skeptical about chances of a breakthrough in the peace process. "In my opinion–Azerbaijan is dragging out the negotiations," he said. "Azerbaijan is not prepared for a settlement. But this is a case where I want to be mistaken."
Meanwhile–Russia’s chief Karabagh negotiator–Yuri Merzlyakov–confirmed on Wednesday that he and the French and American co-chairs of the Minsk Group will likely visit the conflict zone early next month in a bid to arrange another meeting between Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian. Merzlyakov said the two leaders have already been presented with the mediators’ revised peace proposals and are currently studying them. He refused to disclose those proposals.
The Minsk Group’s American co-chair–Steven Mann–is due to pay a separate visit to Baku and Yerevan later this week.