Azerbaijan and Armenia started the process of exchanging prisoners Monday, a move stipulated in the peace deal between the two ex-Soviet nations that ended recent fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijani authorities said an all-for-all exchange of prisoners and hostages have been agreed with Armenia, and a plane with some of the captives landed in Azerbaijan on Monday afternoon.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote on Facebook on Monday evening that 44 captives “will soon return to Armenia” as well.
Neither of the two sides said how many people they intend to release overall. Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency Monday that roughly 60 Nagorno-Karabakh servicemen were being held captive in Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a separatist war there ended in 1994. That war left not only Nagorno-Karabakh but substantial territories around it in Armenian hands.
Heavy fighting erupted in late September and marked the biggest escalation of a decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, killing more than 5,600 people on both sides.
A Russian-brokered peace agreement that took effect Nov. 10 halted the violence and stipulated that Armenia hand over control to Azerbaijan of some areas it holds outside Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders. Azerbaijan also retained control over areas of Nagorno-Karabakh it has taken during the conflict, and both sides agreed to exchange prisoners, hostages and bodies of the victims of the fighting.
The peace deal was celebrated in Azerbaijan as a major triumph, and last week a massive military parade was held in Baku to mark it.
In Armenia, the truce sparked outrage and mass protests, with thousands regularly taking to the streets to demand the ouster of the country’s prime minister over his handling of the conflict.
Pashinyan has defended the deal as a painful but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.
On Monday, the prime minister announced a three-day mourning starting from Saturday to honour the victims of the fighting.