Azerbaijan Admits Shooting Down Russia Helicopter, Raising Stakes of Conflict with Armenia

A Russian military helicopter was shot down while patrolling the skies near the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries currently in the throes of a deadly weeks-long flare-up of longstanding ethno-territorial conflict that threatens to drag in regional powers such as Moscow.

Azerbaijan assumed responsibility for what it claimed was an accident, but the ramifications could run deep.

The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed Monday that one of its Mil Mi-24 gunships was downed by man-portable air-defense system (MANPAD) fire while accompanying a convoy of forces attached to Russia's 102nd military base through Armenian territory near Yersakh, a village located along the border with Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhchivan that also neighbors Iran and Turkey, Russian state-run media reported.

Two crew members were killed when the helicopter crashed into a mountainous area within Armenian territory, according to the statement. The Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations identified the crash site as a gorge between the villages of Yersakh and Paruyr Sevak, and sent a response team that extinguished the fire and recovered three people, two dead and one injured.

The perpetrator was not initially identified and the Russian Defense Ministry said an investigation has been opened.

"The command of the 102nd Russian military base is conducting an investigation to establish the identity of those who shot at the Russian helicopter," the ministry said.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry later released a statement accepting responsibility, expressing condolences and offering compensations for the incident, which it said took place in the dark at a low-altitude near a border area outside of the zone of air defense radar where Russian aircraft had not previously been observed.

"The Azerbaijani side apologizes to the Russian side in connection with this tragic incident, which is accidental and was not directed against the Russian side," the statement said. "The Azerbaijani side expresses its sincere condolences to the families of the perished crew members and wishes the injured people a speedy recovery. The Azerbaijani side declares its readiness to pay appropriate compensation."

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A Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopter conducts training maneuvers over the mountains of Tajikistan in this photo published September 25, 2019. Russian Ministry of Defense

The Armenian Defense Ministry, for its part, has also offered condelences, as well as assistance.

"The Ministry of Defense of Armenia expresses its deep condolences to the Ministry of Defense of Russia on the death of the pilots of the downed helicopter of the RF 102nd military base on the territory of the Republic of Armenia," the ministry said in a statement.

Armenia emphasized that the pilots had died serving the alliance between Moscow and Yerevan.

"Unfortunately, the Russian pilots died while fulfilling their allied duties to the Republic of Armenia's security," the ministry said. "Therefore, with the consent of the Russian Defense Ministry, they will be posthumously nominated for state awards of the Republic of Armenia."

Russia and Armenia are defense allies under the Collective Security Treaty Organization alongside fellow ex-Soviet states Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Azerbaijan, also part of the former Soviet Union, was once a member as well, but joined Georgia and Uzbekistan in refusing to renew in 1999, instead pursuing better ties with the West.

Russia was supportive of Armenia in its last all-out conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700-square mile stretch of land controlled largely by ethnic Armenians but recognized internationally—including by Russia—as part of Azerbaijan, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Moscow has not ruled out intervention in the latest conflict that erupted in late September. President Vladimir Putin has specified, however, that his defense obligations applied only to Armenian territory, not that of the self-proclaimed Artsakh Republic in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Tasked with maintaining the peace, Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group co-chairs France, Russia and the United States have struggled to stave off violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Further complicating matters is the role of Azerbaijan's closest regional partner, Turkey. Ankara is also a Minsk Group member, though not a co-chair, and has offered its full support for Baku's advances to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia and Turkey are already at odds over other conflicts in Syria and Libya, where both powers have been accused of fueling fighting for their own national interests. Despite their rivalry, Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan remain in regular contact on regional issues and have sought to implement various ceasefires with mixed results.

One such agreement has begun to unravel in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where a mix of Turkey-backed opposition fighters and jihadis hold their last territory in a civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran.

As Armenia and Azerbaijan's battles worsened, with Moscow and Tehran both alleging Turkey was sending Syrian fighters to back Baku, the Russian military conducted a massive bombing of the Turkey-backed Faylaq al-Sham insurgent group in Idlib, killing at least 78 fighters and wounding 90 in one of the nearly decade-long war's deadliest strikes.

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An image shared November 9 purports to show the crash site of a Russian military Mil Mi-24 near the villages of Yeraskh and Paruyr Sjak villages in Armenia, near the border with Azerbaijan. Armenian Ministry of Emergency Situations

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.