In a complicated diplomatic exercise involving US and Georgian diplomats, Armenia and Azerbaijan on Saturday implemented "an exchange" that whilst humanitarian in nature also has deep diplomatic consequences.
As part of the exercise, Azerbaijan returned to Armenia fifteen soldiers that had been caught on Azerbaijani territory after the 10 November 2020 ceasefire, and which it had refused to recognise as prisoners of war. On its part, Armenia gave Azerbaijan maps of minefields in the Aghdam Region, which returned to Azerbaijani jurisdiction as a result of the 44-day war. The maps are reported to show the location of 97,000 landmines.
Armenia says the exercise was not an exchange but a parallel process.
Regardless of what you want to call it, the importance of this diplomatic exercise is huge. The involvement of US and Georgian diplomats introduces a new element in the complex situation that has emerged in the South Caucasus since the 44-day war, and the negotiations appear to have bypassed the Russians, whose involvement in the region increased considerably as a result of the 10 November trilateral declaration. Russia has welcomed Saturday's exchange. In a note on her Telegram channel, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said "We welcome such steps by the parties".
Georgian foreign minister, Giorgi Zalkaliani said,
"The first step has been taken. The Azerbaijani side has handed over 15 Armenian citizens detained during the conflict to Armenia through Georgia. They are already in Armenia, with their families. Armenia has provided Azerbaijan with relevant materials to speed up mine clearance and security. I think this is just the beginning of very important relations between the three countries of the South Caucasus - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and, of course, especially with the active participation of our strategic partner, the United States."
The US Government, the European Union and various countries have already welcomed the exchange as a positive step.
The spokesperson of the prime minister of Armenia Mane Gevorgyan, told Armenpress news agency,
"Today, our 15 prisoners of war held in Azerbaijan returned to their homeland. The process was mediated by the US and Georgian authorities, for which the Government of the Republic of Armenia thanks the US Presidential Administration and the Government of Georgia. The return of all our compatriots detained in Azerbaijan is of primary importance for the Armenian government.
"We reaffirm the commitment of the Armenian side to continue the humanitarian process and the implementation of constructive steps with the support of all international partners.
"The Government of the Republic of Armenia once again thanks the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Joe Biden, French President Emanuel Macron, as well as European Council President Charles Michel, for their humanitarian efforts in our region, especially for the repatriation of Armenian captives."
A statement posted on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan said:
"According to the agreement reached, on June 12, 2021, in exchange for providing Azerbaijan with maps of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the Aghdam region, 15 detained Armenians were handed over to Armenia on the Azerbaijani-Georgian border with the participation of Georgian representatives.
"We appreciate the support of the Georgian government headed by the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili for the implementation of this humanitarian action. At the same time, we especially note the mediating role, first of all, of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker, President of the European Council Charles Michel and the Swedish Chairmanship of the OSCE for their contribution to the process.
"Obtaining mine maps will save the lives and health of tens of thousands of our citizens, including demining workers, and accelerate the reconstruction projects initiated by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Ilham Aliyev, in Agdam and the return of IDPs."