YEREVAN (Reuters) - The bodies of three pilots have been removed from a crash site in a special military operation after their helicopter from a region controlled by ethnic Armenians was shown down by Azeri forces earlier this month, officials from the region said.
The downing of the helicopter was the first such incident since a ceasefire was agreed in 1994 following a war over the tiny mountainous territory in the South Caucasus and has ratcheted up tensions between Armenia and oil-producing Azerbaijan.
Azeri armed forces had been preventing soldiers from approaching the crash site and removing the bodies of the pilots, who were on a training flight, according to defense ministry officials in both the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and Armenia.
“As a result of a special operation, the remains of the crew were retrieved, as were specific parts of the helicopter,” Karabakh’s defense ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
It said that two Azeri soldiers were killed during the operation and that the Armenian side did not suffer any losses.
Azeri officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Azerbaijan earlier confirmed it had shot down a helicopter but said it was an Armenian aircraft that had intended to attack Azeri soldiers near the mined and heavily guarded line of contact around Nagorno-Karabakh.
The incident highlighted the risk that tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh could trigger a wider conflict in the South Caucasus, through which oil and gas flow from the Caspian region to Europe.
About 30,000 people were killed in fighting between ethnic Azeris and Armenians, which erupted in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Mainly Muslim Azerbaijan and predominantly Christian Armenia regularly trade accusations of inciting violence along the Azeri-Armenian border and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
The region runs its own affairs with heavy military and financial backing from Armenia.
The OSCE’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, has failed to find a permanent settlement to the conflict, and no peace treaty has ever been signed.
Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan; Writing by Margarita Antidze; editing by Jane Baird