Azerbaijan and Armenia have agreed to a prisoner exchange, and to work towards normalizing ties and a peace deal to a decades-long conflict — a move the United States and European Union have welcomed.
Azerbaijan will release 32 prisoners of war to Armenia in exchange for two, all members of the military, according to a joint statement published by Azerbaijan’s state news agency AZERTAC.
“The Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan share the view that there is a historical chance to achieve a long-awaited peace in the region. Two countries reconfirm their intention to normalize relations and to reach the peace treaty on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement reads. The breakthrough comes after talks between the offices of the Azerbaijani president and the Armenian prime minister.
“An agreement has been reached on taking tangible steps towards building confidence between two countries,” the statement reads.
A US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the prisoner swap represented “an important confidence building measure” as the two countries work towards a peace agreement.
“We commend Azerbaijani President (Ilham) Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister (Nikol) Pashinyan for their joint efforts to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful and prosperous future for the people of the South Caucasus,” Miller said in a statement. “The United States will continue to strongly support efforts to reach a durable and dignified peace.”
“Establishing and deepening bilateral dialogue between sides has been a key objective of the EU-led Brussels process: today’s progress is a key step,” EU Council President Charles Michel said on X. “I now encourage the leaders to finalise the … peace deal ASAP.”
The neighboring nations have been engaged in a decades long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the Caucasus Mountains.
In September, Azerbaijan regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian enclave within its borders, after launching a lightning 24-hour assault.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally considered part of Azerbaijan but for decades has been under the control of Armenian separatists. Armenia and Azerbaijan had already fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and ceasefire agreements between them have proven brittle.
Armenia earlier this year conceded that the region was part of Azerbaijan, but there are still divisions over the future of its government.
The latest breakthrough on prisoner exchanges and normalizing ties came as delegates from both countries also attend the COP28 climate talks in Dubai.
The statement also said that Armenia would pull out of the running to host the annual UN-backed climate summit next year and that it hoped other countries would support Azerbaijan’s candidacy.
There is a vacuum for the summit host for COP29 in 2024, which should be held in eastern Europe, as UN rules dictate. The two nations had before Thursday been blocking each other’s candidacy in the voting process.
The host country is decided by vote among nations within the region for the year. Russia has voted against several nations that are members of or allied to the European Union.
Azerbaijan, which has been forging closer ties with Russia, is a major oil and gas producer. Oil and gas make up nearly half the country’s GDP and more than 90% of its exports.
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