At least 60 Armenian soldiers have gone missing in action from their posts near the Khtsabert village of the southernmost Hadrut region of Artsakh.
Khtsabert and Hin Tagher were the targets of attacks by the Azerbaijani military on December 11, the first resumption of military hostilities since the end-of-war agreement was signed on November 9.
While the Hadrut region was captured by Azerbaijan during the war, these two villages remained under Armenian control as of November 9. The Armenian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported that after several hours of fighting the Azerbaijani armed forces succeeded in entering the village of Hin Tagher and approached the village of Khtsabert. Military officials say both sides suffered casualties. Six Armenian soldiers were wounded in the attack.
The Russian MoD confirmed on December 12 that the incident the previous day represented the first ceasefire violation since the trilateral agreement was signed over a month earlier. Prior to the attack, no Russian peacekeepers had been stationed at Hin Tagher and Khtsabert, even though the two villages are located on roads controlled by the Azerbaijani military. Shortly after the fighting, Russian peacekeepers entered the area, de-escalating hostilities. The following day, the MoD of Russia released a new map of its peacekeeping presence in Artsakh, demonstrating southward expansion of Russian control by ten kilometers along a narrow strip of land extending to Hin Tagher and Khtsabert. However, on December 14, the MoD published a map omitting that strip of land, suggesting that the Azerbaijani military has taken control of Hin Tagher and Khtsabert.
On the morning of December 16, the Artsakh MoD reported that it had lost communication with several units of the Armenian armed forces in the Hin Tagher and Khtsabert communities. Russian peacekeepers had been called to the region to assist in searching for the missing soldiers overnight to ascertain whether they had been captured. During a speech broadcast on Facebook Live that afternoon, Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan confirmed that several dozen Armenian soldiers had been taken prisoner by Azerbaijan.
The Armenian MoD denied rumors circulating that 171 Armenian soldiers are missing, instead reporting that the fate of 73 soldiers is unknown. It said that investigations to find them are ongoing with the support of Russian peacekeepers. The MoD also affirmed that a video circulating online depicting a group of Armenian soldiers being escorted out of an Azerbaijani blockade in Hadrut corresponds to reality, stating that the operation was conducted with the participation of Russian peacekeeping forces.
In a statement denouncing the December 11 attack, the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Azerbaijani forces continued their provocative actions the following day in the direction of the Mets Shen and Hin Shen villages. After visiting these communities, Beglaryan said that the actions of Azerbaijani servicemen in the area “violated the highest political arrangements” while “posing threats to the security of the local population.” Harutyunyan confirmed during his speech that Azerbaijani soldiers had been driven out of Hin Shen by Russian peacekeepers.
During a live Facebook address on December 14, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that the Azerbaijani military had taken “advantage of the fact that Russian peacekeepers had not been deployed in this region” to attack Hin Tagher and Khtsabert, consequently taking “control of those communities.” “Since according to the situation on November 9 that region was under the control of the Armenian armed forces, it must continue to remain under the control of the Armenian armed forces,” he said. According to the ceasefire agreement, each side would stop at their positions and retain control of territories captured in the course of the war as of November 9.
During that same video address, Pashinyan stated that a group of prisoners of war (POWs) whose capture had been confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross would soon be returned home. That evening, 44 POWs were transported to Armenia on a Russian airplane.
Armenia and Azerbaijan claim to have fulfilled exchange of POWs on an “all-for-all” basis to which they had previously committed, as 14 POWs were also transferred to Azerbaijan. Yet Beglaryan stressed that all of the Armenian POWs have not yet been returned home, as there are still Armenian soldiers held captive in Azerbaijan, as well as missing soldiers and civilians. Pashinyan stated during his address that the process of locating and identifying missing soldiers will commence immediately after the exchange yet will not be complete by the end of the year.
Azerbaijan has received international criticism regarding evidence of its cruel and inhumane treatment of Armenian captive soldiers, including a scathing report printed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on December 2 condemning Azerbaijan’s violent and humiliating treatment of POWs. HRW spoke with human rights attorneys Artak Zeynalyan and Siranush Sahakyan, who represent the families of nearly forty POWs in cases submitted to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for urgent measures to secure their protection and sufficient medical care while in captivity. According to Zeynalyan, half of the 44 POWs returned to Armenia on December 14 are individuals on behalf of whom they have submitted complaints to the ECHR.
On December 10, Amnesty International published a report based on 22 videos, calling for an investigation into war crimes committed by both Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers. Two of the videos show “extrajudicial executions by decapitation by Azerbaijani military members” while another shows “the cutting of an Azerbaijani border guard’s throat that led to his death.” A large number of videos circulating online and on social media depicting Azerbaijani troops torturing and executing Armenian POWs and desecrating their corpses remain unverified.
On the same day of the exchange, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan shared that four Azerbaijani soldiers had been arrested and charged under the Azerbaijani Criminal Code based on evidence from videos disseminated on social media in which they were seen insulting the bodies of Armenian servicemen in the region of Zangilan and destroying Armenian gravestones in the region of Khojavend. In its announcement, the Prosecutor General’s Office said these acts “contradict the mentality of the Azerbaijani people, which is tolerant…and historically humane.”
Meanwhile the “Movement for the Salvation of the Homeland” has called for a nationwide strike and boycott of university classes to commence at midnight on Tuesday, December 22 in order to demand Pashinyan’s resignation. The general strike was announced by Armenian Revolutionary Federation Supreme Council chairperson Ishkhan Saghatelyan during a protest in Yerevan on Wednesday. “The entire country must be paralyzed so that this scarecrow resigns as soon as possible,” he proclaimed.
During his live address, Artsakh President Harutyunyan stated that he is ready to resign from his position when he feels that the Republic is prepared to overcome the domestic instability associated with presidential and parliamentary elections. At the earliest possible moment, he will resign and elections will be held in which he will not take part. In the meantime he has stepped down from his post as chairman of the “Free Homeland” political party to make way for a more unifying figure.