Friday, 16 September 2011

Armenia claims to have shot down Azerbaijani

For the first time since the end of outright hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994, an aircraft has been shot down over the conflict zone –an Azerbaijani drone, shot down by separatist forces of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).

The separatist authorities, which have close political and military links with Armenia, made their claim on 14th September, and released photos of the wreckage of the drone. Azerbaijan, usually quick and vociferous in denouncing 'Armenian propaganda', did not respond to the allegations until late on 15th September, when a terse statement from the defence ministry said that Azerbaijan “has nothing to do with the pilotless air force jet”.

Armenian and NKR officials have been vocal in discussing the incident. Armenia's chief of Air Defence Forces, Nikolai Babayan, said that drones were very difficult to hit, but that special hardware from Armenia had enabled the NKR forces to shoot it down. A senior Karabakh military official struck a triumphant note, saying that “the aggressor [Azerbaijan] will now feel more restrained because the destruction of such military hardware also shows the extent of the technical sophistication of our army”.

Officials also said that Azerbaijan's drones regularly fly along the Line of Contact between Azerbaijan and territories occupied by the NKR, but that in this instance the drone had penetrated around 10km into airspace claimed by the separatists.

The weapons used to bring down the drone are presumably Russian-made S300s, supplied to Armenia by Moscow as part of their long-standing military alliance. This indicates that, as widely surmised, Armenia has transferred military hardware to the NKR. Pictures of the wreckage indicate that the drone is an Israeli-made Hermes. Armenian groups in the US have said that markings indicate that the drone is supplied by a Canadian company with offices in the US, which would be a violation of an arms embargo imposed on Baku.

The physical evidence and the guarded Azerbaijani reaction suggests that Armenia's claims are genuine. Although ceasefire violations are nothing new, shooting down an advanced aircraft which was conducting surveillance deep in separatist territory represents a qualitative increase in the conflict. Armenia is allegedly producing its own drones, and Azerbaijan will be keen to respond in kind. This suggests that the air is becoming another theatre of the long-simmering conflict.

Sources; Bloomberg,, PanArmenian, Eurasianet

For more news and expert analysis about the Caspian region, please see Caspian Focus.

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