Nagorno-Karabakh accuses Azeri forces of capturing troops despite ceasefire

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Ethnic Armenian authorities in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azeri forces on Wednesday of capturing several dozen of their troops, putting further strain on a ceasefire deal that brought an end to bloody fighting in the region last month.

The Russian-brokered deal halted a six-week conflict between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces over the region and its surrounding areas, locking in territorial gains for Azerbaijan.

Moscow has deployed peacekeepers to police the ceasefire, but skirmishes broke out on Sunday that Azerbaijan and Armenia each blamed on the other side. Four Azeri troops were reported killed in the fighting and six ethnic Armenians wounded.

In a new setback on Wednesday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s defence ministry said it had lost contact with several military positions late on Tuesday in areas that were supposed to remain under its control according to the Nov. 10 ceasefire deal.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry declined to comment.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s ministry said it had failed to locate the troops despite carrying out search operations through the night.

Hours later, regional head Arayik Harutyunyan said the troops had been captured and accused Azerbaijan of a “provocation.”

“Several dozen servicemen were taken hostage by Azeri forces in the direction of Ktsaberd village, and the defence ministry is currently trying to figure out all the circumstances,” Harutyunyan said in a pre-written speech posted on his Facebook page.

Later, Armenia’s defence ministry said Russian peacekeepers had helped lead a number of Armenian troops out after they had been encircled by Azeri forces, the Interfax news agency reported.

It was not immediately clear if they were the same troops who had been reported captured.

The incident came shortly after Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed they had begun exchanging groups of prisoners of war, part of an “all for all” swap mediated by Russia.

Reporting by Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan; additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova in Baku; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alison Williams, Hugh Lawson and Richard Chang