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Armenia hands over Azerbaijani in prisoner exchange

YEREVAN, Armenia – Agence France-Presse | 11/4/2010 12:00:00 AM |

Armenia handed over an Azerbaijani civilian to Baku on Thursday and received the body of an Armenian, the defense ministry said, in the first swap under a Russian-brokered deal aimed at easing tensions.

Armenia handed over an Azerbaijani civilian to Baku on Thursday and received the body of an Armenian, the defense ministry said, in the first swap under a Russian-brokered deal aimed at easing tensions.

Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed at a summit in Russia last week to swap prisoners of war and exchange the bodies of those killed in their conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The exchange agreement, which officials said would involve a handful of prisoners and bodies being held by each side, was hailed internationally as a step toward reducing increasing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman David Karapetian told Agence France-Presse that the Azerbaijani civilian had been handed over to Azerbaijani authorities on the two countries' shared border Thursday.

He had been captured after crossing illegally into Armenia earlier this year.

Armenia in exchange received the body of Manvel Saribekian, an Armenian prisoner who Azerbaijani authorities said had committed suicide while in detention last month.

Azerbaijan had said Saribekian was a soldier but Armenia insisted he was a shepherd who had accidentally crossed into Azerbaijani territory.

"The Armenian side has handed over a citizen of Azerbaijan in accordance with agreements reached between the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia," Karapetian said.

"Armenia is showing good will and expects the Azerbaijani side to also carry out its obligations," he said.

Tensions over Karabakh have been rising this year amid stalled peace talks, with the number of deadly shootings along a ceasefire line on the rise for months.

At least 21 soldiers on both sides have been reported killed in clashes this year, including 11 killed in the last two months.

International mediators and Western diplomats have raised concerns about increasing violence over Karabakh, where Armenian separatists backed by Yerevan seized control from Baku in a war in the early 1990s that left an estimated 30,000 dead.

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