It also has added fuel to what has become Baku’s most vocal demand of Armenia since the war: that Yerevan hand over maps of the mines it laid during the war.
Azerbaijani officials bring up the issue of mine maps at every possible international forum, #FreeUsFromLandMines has become a ubiquitous hashtag on social media, and stories about Armenia’s refusal to hand over the maps dominate local media.
But do those maps even exist?
Unofficially, many Armenians say they don’t. Armenian analysts and commentators have been arguing that there are no such maps, that the mines laid in the war were scattered hastily as Armenian forces retreated, with no time for careful record-keeping.
“You need to understand that precise maps don’t exist – everything was ‘sown’ chaotically,” said journalist Yuri Manvelyan in an interview with RFE/RL published on June 6. “Even if the authorities in Yerevan, or someone in Stepanakert, or Russian peacekeepers, say that they have precise maps of minefields, it’s not true. That is, they physically don’t exist.”
Unnamed officials from both Armenia and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh government told researchers from the International Crisis Group that “they have no such maps,” the organization noted in a report released this week.
But publicly, Armenian officials don’t make those kinds of denials, and instead have been avoiding the question. An official from Armenia’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment directly on why officials are keeping quiet about the existence or nonexistence of the maps. The official pointed Eurasianet to comments in April by then-spokesperson Anna Naghdalyan saying that the mine map issue is a “fake agenda” pushed by Baku to deflect attention from Azerbaijan’s continuing detention of close to 200 prisoners of war and other detainees. But she did not then address whether such maps exist.
Foreign diplomats, who may be in a better position to know about the existence of mine maps than the rest of us, have occasionally implied that they exist. United States Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, who visited both Azerbaijan and Armenia this week, reportedly said in Baku on June 8: “It is a tragedy that people are killed as the result of the mine explosion … We think that it is necessary to give all the minefields maps. We can render technical assistance in the process of clearing the territories from mines.” (By the time this piece went to press, U.S. officials were not able to confirm the accuracy of that quote.) Reeker’s comments in Yerevan did not touch on mine maps.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on his own tour of the region a month earlier, seemed to even more explicitly confirm the existence of the maps. “We discussed this issue [of minefield maps] a couple of days ago in Yerevan,” he said in Baku on May 11. “It seemed to me that the Armenian leadership has the understanding of the necessity to resolve this issue. The first preliminary steps in this direction were made, I informed Azerbaijan’s leadership of them. We hope that this process will be significantly accelerated and will allow this problem to be resolved completely.”
A May 18 European Union parliament resolution called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to cooperate on issues including “the provision of maps of minefields” and to “provide available maps of minefields to permit civilians to return to former conflict regions.” That somewhat cautious wording was echoed following the deaths of the journalists by EU spokesperson Peter Stano, who tweeted that “All information necessary for demining must be exchanged.”
Armenia Azerbaijan: Civilian casualties of #landmines must be prevented. All information necessary for demining must be exchanged. 🇪🇺 supports ban on land mines & urges 🇦🇲 & 🇦🇿 to resolve pending humanitarian issues, including release of detainees. https://t.co/3TdM1gFvTF
— Peter Stano (@ExtSpoxEU) June 4, 2021