The development came one week after the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents agreed to swap all prisoners of war (POWs) and the bodies of each other’s citizens kept by them. The agreement was reached during their fresh talks hosted by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in the Russian city of Astrakhan.
The exchange took place on a blocked road in the westernmost section of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Eldar Tagirov, an Azerbaijani civilian, was sent back home about one year after crossing into Armenia in still unclear circumstances.
A blindfolded Tagirov was swapped for the corpse of Manvel Saribekian, a 20-year-old resident of an Armenian border village who was captured by Azerbaijani troops on September 11. Saribekian was reportedly found hanged in an Azerbaijani prison cell on October 5.
The authorities in Baku said he committed suicide. The Armenian government disputes this, saying that Saribekian was either murdered or “driven to suicide.” It has also strongly denied Azerbaijani claims that the young man was a member of an Armenian sabotage unit sent to Azerbaijan.
The exchange went ahead after radio negotiations between Armenian and Azerbaijani military commanders on the ground. “During the exchange, the ceasefire regime will not be violated in the territory under my control and I am giving security guarantees to all representatives,” an Azerbaijani officer could be heard saying in Russian over the radio.
“I, the local commander, am giving security guarantees to Red Cross representatives present here and am guaranteeing ceasefire,” replied his Armenian opposite number.
“It is always very sad to have to bring bad news or repatriate a body,” Melany Vonrospach, an ICRC delegate in Yerevan who participated in the repatriation, said afterwards.
Armenian Defense Minister spokesman Davit Karapetian told reporters at the scene that Saribekian’s body will be examined by forensic experts before being handed over to his family. “Manvel Saribekian’s body will undergo a medical-forensic examination, the results of which will be relayed to the public as soon as possible,” he said.
“We expect Azerbaijan to demonstrate the same kind of determination and repatriate Armenian prisoners of war kept in Azerbaijani captivity,” added the official.
Azerbaijan is currently holding six Armenian POWs. According to the Defense Ministry in Yerevan, there are presently two Azerbaijani POWs in Nagorno-Karabakh and none in Armenia proper.
Also, the Karabakh Armenians have yet to repatriate at least one Azerbaijani corpse. Baku says the body of another Azerbaijani soldier, who was killed in June and posthumously declared a “national hero,” is also held by them.
“The power to repatriate those Azerbaijanis rests with Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities,” said Karapetian. “They are now in negotiations with Red Cross representatives.”
The ICRC effectively confirmed that. “The organization is currently involved in discussions on repatriating other internees and human remains in both directions, including the remains of two Azerbaijani soldiers recently killed in the area along the Line of Contact,” it said in a written statement.
“We would like to reiterate that in our capacity as a neutral intermediary, we stand ready to facilitate repatriations,” the Red Cross director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Pascale Meige Wagner, was quoted as saying. “However, we must stress that the ICRC only repatriates a released detainee after it has confirmed that the person is returning to their home country of their own free will.”
The Red Cross has long been involved in Armenian-Azerbaijani prisoner exchanges. Last April, it helped to repatriate an Azerbaijani POW and the remains of two other Azerbaijani soldiers killed in Armenian territory earlier this year.