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Air War over Nagorniy-Kharabakh, 1988-1994
By Tom Cooper
Sep 29, 2003, 11:48

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In the time between 1987 and 1996, a series of small wars broke out in and between different of former republics of the Soviet Union. Most of these wars were nothing more but a sort of a clash between the communist structures and reformers, or between the orthodox Catholics and Muslims, but also many persons of doubtful background, as all of these conflicts saw the involvement of the remaining exSoviet and Russian military and political structures to one degree or the other.

What is little known is that the war between the – largely Christian - Armenia and – largely Muslim - Azerbaijan began already in 1987 with an outburst of violence by repressed Moslems of Azerbaijan against priviledged Armenians living in what was at the time still one of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Before the Soviet Army cruelly intervenned, several hundred Armenians were killed. Correspondingly, the Armenians were demanding a revenge. The situation in turn precipited the mass exodus of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan refugees from Armenia - that with the time developed into a sort of “ethnic cleansing”, conducted by both sides.

Nagorniy Kharabakh, a 210sqkm large mountainous area inside Azerbaijan, however, is inhabited foremost by the Armenians and completely encircled by Azerbaijanis: the locals had no avenue of escape. With the help of sympathetic officers of the Soviet Army, in 1988 the local Armenians formed an armed militia and established a solid control over their enclave. On 2 September 1991, they declared the Nagorno-Kharabachskaya Avtonomnaya Oblast (NKAO) as independent from Azerbaijan, and explained their intention to join Armenia.

Azerbaijanis were slightly slower in establishing their indepencence: it was October 1991 before Azerbaijan was declared independent from the disolving USSR, and the Azeris began organizing their own militia. In reaction the Armenis formed a unitary command for all of their militias, which now operated under the aegis of the NKO Self-Defense Force (NKAOSDF) – also called “Armenian Expeditionary Corps” by the Azeris.

On their side, the Azeris living in southern Armenia formed own militias as well, and in the same month declared their own autonomous republic of Nachichevan.

Soon enough, Nagorny Kharabakh and Nachichevan became the arena of the most violent battles between the two parties. While claiming the other side would be enjoying a "superiority of arms", the Armenians were exhaustively supported by remaining local units of the Soviet Army, the officers of which favoured the Armenian side. Consequently the Armenians and the Russians had little problems to put the whole Kharabakh area and several adjacent parts of Azerbaijan under their control, as well as to establish a land corridor to Armenia.

Supplies are offloaded from an Aeroflot Mi-8 on one of several landing sites in Kharabakh. The supply flights undertaken by the Russian military and civilian helicopters were instrumental for the survival of the Armenian enclave. (via Mikhail Zhirokhov)

During the first stages of the conflict (1988-91) in the Kharabakh, transport helicopters of the Soviet Air Force were intensively used for supplying isolated Armenians and evacuating the injured and refugees. Also, Mi-8 helicopters and Yak-40 transports of the Armenian section of AEROFLOT made sorties into Stepankert, the capital of Nagorny Kharabakh, bringing weapons from Armenia. Some of these military and civil aircraft were shot down by Azerbaijan ground fire. For example, in 1990 an Antonow An-2 was shot down, and on 1 August 1990 the AEROFLOT lost a Yak-40, killing 43 of crew and passengers.

Dissolution of the USSR

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, arms from the former Transcaucasian Military District of the Soviet Army found their way to both of the newly established countries, as both – Armenia and Azerbaijan – started taking over the equipment from the units of the Soviet Army, which were now to left the area.

Both sides acquired plenty of heavy equipment, including aircraft and helicopters, in the process. In late December 1991 for example, the Azerbaijanis took over 14 Mi-8s and Mi-24s from the Russian Army unit stationed in Sangatchaliy: these became the main equipment of the newly-established Azerbaijan Air Force (AzAF), officially organized in June 1992. Additional helicopters were acquired from other sources of similar nature: often enough, local officers of the former Soviet military were more than glad to sell equipment of their units to the best-bidder - regardless if Azerbaijani or Aremnians. Dozens of former Soviet officers were hired as mercenaries. Without surprise, the Azerbaijanis were able to develop an own air force within a relatively short period of time, which initially operated between 25 and 30 Mi-24s, in addition to a number of Mi-8s and Mi-17s, and some other aircraft and helicopters. Additional airframes were acquired - in almost every possible way - during the war with Armenia.

The Armenians were less in a hurry, as the units of the (now) Russian Army west still activelly supporting them. Besides, they could count on no less but 30 trained and fully-qualified helicopter and aircraft pilots, even if most of these were under-trained reservists or mercenaries recruited from different CIS-states. Nevertheless, they were able to establish control over 13 Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters of the former 7th GvVP, based near Yerevan. Still, it was August 1992 before the Armenian Air Force (ArAF) was officially founded.

Map of Armenia and Azerbaijan with main Air Bases left from the times of the USSR. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003)

First Battle

Serious fighting broke out in January 1992, and soon the AzAF began using Mi-8s and Mi-24s to transport reinforcements around the front. Due to the fluid situation on the battlefield, poor communications and training but lots of enthusiasm on the part of participants on both sides, an understandable chaos reigned within both military services, but especially so the Azerbaijani army and air force. Without surprise, they were much too often an easy prey for well-armed Armenians and Russian-supported Armenians. Already on 9 January, the Armenians claimed the first AzAF helicopter as shot down, and more claims followed on 24, 28 and 31 – all of them over Nagorniy Kharabakh, the last being a Mi-8 downed by MANPADs over the village of Huha. On the same day, 31 January, the Azeris also claimed their first victims, when they shot down two (Russian) Mi-8s that supported the first Armenian offensive.

After the initial chaos, the next two months were relatively quiet and there were only sporadic reports about the fighting. The only report known from this period is the one about the first combat sortie flown by AzAF Mi-24s, on 19 February, when two of them – flown by exSoviet Army mercenaries – attacked Armenian positions near Karagaliy. Obviously, both sides used this break to obtain more equipment, establish new units, build up stocks of supplies and improve their positions. The Russians used this period for evacuation of their nationals from the area. In most cases, helicopters had to be used, as numerous villages were cut off from the outside world. Exactly such an evacuation caused the first instance of air combat during this war.

On 3 March 1992, a RuAF Mi-26 – escorted by two Mi-24s – delivered 20 tons of food to the Kharabakh village of Gyulistan. On the return flight, the helicopter transported 50 Russian refugees (mainly women and children) from Stepankert to Yerevan. Before reaching the Armenian airspace, the formation was intercepted by a camouflaged AzAF Mi-8 that seems to have fired in the general direction of the Mi-26. Before any hits could be scored, however, the Azeri Mi-8 was driven away by escorting Mi-24s. Attempting to avoid a wider confrontation, the Russian pilots did not insist and gave up the pursuit.

Nevertheless, minutes later, the Armenians shot down the Mi-26s by a single 9K32/SA-7A over the village of Seydilyar, killing 12, and injuring 38. The RuAF immediately initiated a SAR operation, and two Mi-8s managed to extricate the injured survivors despite considerable difficulties caused by the deep snow in the area.

On the first view, the Azeri attack against this Mi-26 appears as an unprovoked slaughter of civilians, but it must be mentioned, that between the 23 February and 7 March, the Russian Army helicopters flew the whole 366th Mechanized Infantry Regiment to Stepankert, the capital of Nagorniy-Kharabakh. The Azeris - not without a good reason - considered this unit and helicopters that supported it as likely to support the local Armenians, and thus as a legitimate target. There were constant problems with identification of helicopters and aircraft deployed by all three involved parties, as most of these wore similar camouflage and markings. New markings of Armenia and Azerbaijan were largely unknown to helicopter crews and gunners on the ground. Finally, the Azeris were not that wrong with their assumption about what the Russian helicopters were actually doing in Nagorniy-Kharabakh: it is now known, that – between other supplies – the Mi-26s have transported a batch of 9K32 Strela/SA-7A MANPADS and several ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns (two of which were positioned in the hills over Mardakert with a special task of countering AzAF Mi-24s) to Armenian militia in Stepankert.

In late February 1992, the Armenians readied two of their newly formed mechanized brigades for a new offensive with the task of establishing a corridor from the Armenian border to Nagorniy Kharabakh. The attack was initially successful, and a road connection – usually called “Lachin Corridor” - was established, resulting in the Russians now having some time to stand down from flying continuous supply sorties to the isolated enclave. By early March, the Azeris organized a counteroffensive on several places along the Armenian corridor.

During this operation the AzAF again deployed its helicopters, but a number of these was rapidly shot down by newly-reinforced Armenian air defences, now equipped with a considerable number of ZU-23-2s and 9K32 Strelas. On 5 March, another Mi-8 was shot down, followed by a Mi-24 on 28 March, shot down by SA-7s near Kapzchvan.

Key points and areas of main airborne activity during the war in Nagorniy-Karabakh. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003)

One of Armenian L-39s, as seen in the late 1990s. Note that the camouflage pattern consists of - basically - the same colours with which later also Su-25s and Mi-24s were camouflaged, i.e. of blue-green, dark earth-brown, and light green over, with difference that lower sides are painted in pale grey. National markings are worn in six positions, and are frequently oversized (like in this case). This plane has shown heavy wear, with significant oil strains especially on rear fuselage. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Hijacking a Su-25

The heavy losses of the AzAF in the first three months of the conventional fighting forced the Azeris to certain unconventional methods. On 8 April 1992, the AzAF obtained its first fixed-wing combat aircraft, as a 25-years-old Senior Lt. Vagif Kurbanov hijacked a Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack of the 80th IBAP RuAF aircraft from the air base at Sital Tchaiy, and flew it to Azerbaijan. Assisted by two of his compatriots (Aircraft Technician Lieutenant Mamedov and Rigger Warrant Officer Kuliyev), Kurbanov prepared the Su-25 for flight, took off, and, after a flight of several minutes, landed at Yevlakh, a civilian airfield in Azerbaijan. The Russians were obviously surprised by the hijacker, but they did not expect the Azeris to be able to do anything meaningful with the aircraft. Therefore, their surprise was even larger, when Kurbanov started flying combat sorties against Stepankert.

Most of Kurbanov’s strikes flown against different sites in Armenia were of no military value: they usually resulted in destroyed civilian objects and dead civilians. But, it is possible, that he was responsible for downing one of two Russian Mi-8s lost on 17 April over Nagorniy Kharabakh (both crews managed to land their helicopters, but were immediately captured by the Azeris), and it is assumed that he also flew the Su-25 that attacked the Mi-8 flown by the Russian Major Alexander Gorchakov, few days later. On 9 May, he also intercepted a civilian Yak-40 that was flying refugees from Stepankert to Yerevan, and damaged it so heavily by gunfire, that the airliner crashed on landing. Kurbanov’s controversial career as the first fighter-jet pilot of the AzAF found its end on 13 June 1992, when his Su-25 was shot down by Armenian MANPADs over Mkhrdag.

Meanwhile, the AzAF lost two additional Mi-24s, one on 20 April, and another on 18 May, and was left with only six operational helicopters of this type. Nevertheless, these continued flying intensive combat sorties. For example, on 8 May, four Mi-24s raided Stepankert, and on the same day other Azeri helicopters also attacked the NKAOSDF positions – but also civilians – in the villages Avdoor, Krasniy Basar, Myurishen, and Norshen. Three days later, more attacks were flown against Dagraz and Agbooldag. Also, AzAF Mi-24s took part in the third Azeri counteroffensive – this time against Mardakert – which was initiated on 23 June, after the Armenians on 18 May secured the Lachin Corridor, widening it in several places.

Reinforcements for the AzAF

The Azeri offensives in June 1992 put the Armenians under a considerable pressure, but did not manage to cut off the Lachin Corridor. Nevertheless, the Azeris were not to stop, especially as now their military was to be considerably reinforced, as it was agreed that most of the former Soviet Army units still on their soil were to leave their equipment back. On 9 June, the Azeri Defense Minister Rakhim Gasev started an intense operation against the remaining Russian garrisons in Azerbaijan: by applying substantial pressure on local commanders, arresting or bribing several officers, taking hostages, or assaulting several bases, the Azeris managed to take over much heavy equipment, including the Gandzha AB, where no less but eleven (western sources say 16) Su-24MRs, 20 MiG-25RBs, and three Il-76 transports were taken over from the RuAF. The Russians put up no armed resistance on that base, but their pilots managed to fly eight MiG-25RBs out in the last moment, and their technicians also removed the complex “Peleng” nav-attack systems from remaining Foxbats. In this way, the AzAF was reinforced, but could not make much use of the MiG-25s for combat operations.

Actually, much more important for this young air force was the takeover of no less but 70 Aero L-29 Delfin and L-39 training jets of the 97th IAP, at Sanchagaly AB, in the same month. These planes - and a number of additional helicopters taken-over elsewhere - were not only very useful for training and re-qualification of new pilots for fast jets, but are known to have been used also in combat already in June 1992. At least one L-39 was shot down during renewed fighting along the Lachin Corridor, on 24 of the same month (the pilot was killed), together with two more Azeri Mi-24s (one of which went down already on 19 June). As it seems, most of the L-29s and L-39s were flown by the former Azeri cadets from various flying schools of the Soviet Air Force. When the war began, many of Azeri cadets were dismissed “for health reasons”. This was especially the case with students based at Salyuan and Pirsagat airfields, although the main base for the L-29s remained the Armavir Air Force Pilots School, at Sanchagaly, which subsequently became training center of the AzAF.

And that was not all: the Azeris captured a large depot with spare parts for MiG-25s near Baku, and also some old and unserviceable MiG-21s at Dallyar AB, while the Azerbaijan Army was also reinforced by much heavy equipment, including T-72 tanks.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of Russian officers stationed in Azerbaijan joined the Azeri military. One of them was RuAF Col. Vladimir Kravtsov, CO of the PVO regiment equipped with MiG-25PDs and stationed at Nasosny AB. Kravtsov dissolved his unit and joined the Azeris, becoming the commander of the AzAF. Another was the former deputy commander of the Dallyar AB, Lt.Col. Alexander Plesh, who became a commander of a fighter wing of the AzAF. Finally, there was Capt. Yuri Belichenko, who was later to fly several combat sorties with repaired MiG-25RBs, before being shot down (by an 9K32/SA-7A) and captured by the Armenians on 20 August 1992 (his plane was initially reported as Su-25 or L-29).

Aside from qualified pilots, the Azeris managed to press an ever increasing number of MiG-25RBs and MiG-25PDs into service with the AzAF, and during August and September they were to fly a numer of bombing sorties against Armenia.

Azeris inherited at least 70 Aero L-29 and L-39 training jets from the former 97th IAP, based at Sanchagaly AB. 12 L-39s - including this example - are known to have been rushed into service during the war with Armenia. They were often misidentified as "Su-25s". Camouflage pattern of these aircraft was not changed since they are in AzAF service; cocards (there is no fin-flash) are applied in six positions. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Bloody Autumn

The military situation in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late summer and autumn 1992 became very precarious for both sides. On 19 July, the NKAOSDF – reinforced by regular Armenian troops – stormed the hills around Mardakert, and successfully captured several important peaks. The Azeris responded by pounding the hills with BM-21 rocket launchers, and also air strikes, flown by MiG-25s, L-39s and Mi-24s. The Armenians were unable to keep the corridor into Nagorniy Kharabakh permanently open, as their transport convoys were frequently hit by AzAF fighters and helicopters. This caused the Armenian troops inside the enclave to be constantly short on fuel, ammunition, and other supplies. On the other side, intensive operations cost Azeris - which proved unable to break the stubborn Armenian resistance – dearly, both on the ground and in the air.

Beside the loss of the MiG-25PD flown by Capt. Belichenko, on 20 August, near Chebran, a MiG-21 was shot down on the same day near Shokhiy. The Russian pilot, called Alexander, later died as PoW in Armenia. Another AzAF MiG-21 was shot down also over Shokhiy on 31 August, by small-arms fire. On 5 September, also a Mi-24 flown by Russian Maj. Sergey Sinyushkin and Capt. Yeugeni Karlov was shot down, and the crew killed, and another Mi-24 went down near Askeran, on 18 September.

Armenian Air Force Mi-24P "42" as seen in the late 1990s. The camouflage pattern appears quite unusual for Mi-24s of any nation - especially one that was mainly using "Hinds" left behind by the Soviet armed forces. But, this combination of two Greens and Brown is what all the combat aircraft and helicopters of the ArAF now wear. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Spoiled Negotiations

Officially and inofficially, Moscow half-heartedly supported Armenia, foremost in order to keep the back of its units engaged in Georgia and Chechnya free. In September, the Russians attempted to organize negotiations: on 19 of the month, a meeting between the Defense Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia, was organized in Sochi, on which a cease-fire for the following two months was agreed. The commanders of involved armies and the troops on the front, however, barely noticed any kind of a break in fighting.

As the ArAF still lacked combat aircraft, the AzAF meet snore resistance in the air, and in October started a series of severe attacks against supply bases and the traffic along the corridor. The Armenians responded by reinforcing their – already fairly effective – air defenses, for example by deploying eight S-60 57mm anti-aircraft guns along the Lachin Corridor. Two of these were positioned in the hills overlooking Mardakert, and they soon started claiming additional successes, even if one was destroyed in the first AzAF Mi-24 attack against their position, when the crews were taken completely by surprise by a Hind closing at a very low level and high speed.

On 10 October, the Armenians claimed another Su-25 shot down over Nagorniy-Kharabakh. Indeed, an AzAF fighter was downed by MANPADs on that day near the village of Malibeili, and its Russian pilot was killed when his parachute failed to deploy. But, the aircraft in question was almost certainly not Su-25: it is questionable where from could the Azeris get additional Sukhois and why should they try to purchase any. Of course, there was a small possibility that the Georgians have supplied one or two examples, as Su-25s were assembled at the Tbilisi aircraft plant. However, at the time the Georgians needed Su-25s far more than the Azeris (because of their own war in South Ossetia), so it is most likely that the plane shot down on this occasion was one of the Azeri L-29s. Actually, in1992 the Armenians tended to claim any of the downed Azeri planes as “Su-25”. On the other side, the Azeri claim for downing one Su-25 over Noviy Afon, on 15 October, was correct, but the plane in question was definitely Russian.

Finally, in late October, Azerbaijan launched a new offensive, striking both sides of the Armenian corridor with armored forces. The Armenians could not stand such attack, even if it was relatively slow to develop due to the problematic terrain. Nevertheless, their air defenses continued claiming additional successes. On 30 October and 1 November one AzAF MiG-21 was shot down over Argadzar, respectively (Azeris apparently purchased several MiG-21s from the Ukraine), followed by a MiG-25 over Srkharend, and an L-29 over Nagorniy Kharabakh. At least two Azeri and Russian pilots were killed, while one Russian, Anatoliy Chistyakov, was captured. On the ground, the Armenians also deployed their amour, but a number of T-72s and BMP-1s were destroyed when the AzAF MiG-21s and MiG-25s started using R-60 missiles in anti-tank role again. In the following days, the fighting spread from the corridor at Latchin and Nagorniy Kharabakh also to the remaining border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the AzAF was flying intensive support and transport missions: especially the helicopters were used to deploy forces along the mountain ridges, and one of them – a Mi-8 packed with not less but 40 troops – was shot down on 1 November.

Rare photo of knocked out Armeni BMP-1 IFV: note the insignia (white cross) on the front and the side. (ITAR-TASS)

Meanwhile, the Russians reinforced their efforts to evacuate their nationals from the area, and started using even heavy transport aircraft for such tasks. One of these, an An-22 (CCCP-09331) crashed on 11 November 1992 during take-off from Migalovo, probably because the hefty load was not well enough secured. On the same day, the Armenians claimed another AzAF fighter shot down over Shushimsky, but on the next day have lost one of their Mi-24 near Kazakh. Despite this loss, starting several local counterattacks – most of which have got some kind of support from ArAF - the Armenian Army managed to take back several villages in Nagorniy Kharabakh, and also re-open the corridor to the enclave at least for traffic at night. This success was heavily paid in blood, not only by the ground forces, but also by the crews of the Armenian Air Force. On 23 November, two Mi-8s were hit when they flew over unknown Azeri positions: one helicopter was immediately shot down, the other managed to land behind the Armenian positions. Another Mi-8 was lost on 30 December, and on the same day two AzAF fighters also flew another strike against Stepankert, killing ten civilians in the process.

War-Weariness in Armenia

The long and bloody war now started to cause problems for the Armenian government, as the popularity of President Petrosian sank rapidly, despite his success in securing more support from the Turkey and Russia. The situation could not have been improved even after – in early January 1993 – the Armenian Ministry of Defense published more details about the Azeri aircraft shot down during the fighting in autumn 1992. According to this list, the AzAF lost one MiG-21, one MiG-23, one MiG-25PD, two MiG-25RBs, three L-29s – and two Su-25s. This was the first time for the official Armenian sources to name other types of Azeri aircraft claimed to have been shot down – than Su-25s.

Exploiting the war-weariness of the Armenians, and in the middle of another series of negotiations for a peaceful solution of the war, on 1 January 1993, the Azeris started a new offensive, this time directly against the most important Armenian positions in Nagorniy Kharabakh. This time, the Azeri troops were successful, as they almost managed to break the Armenian resistance. The AzAF intensively supported this operation, but lost two fighters already on the first day of the operation. Nevertheless, by the 2 January, the Armenian corridor to Nagorniy Kharabakh was cut off again.

After bringing forward some reinforcements, on 7 January, the Armenians started their counteroffensive, which was also supported from the air. But, on the same day, the ArAF suffered heavy losses, as no less but at least one Mi-8, one Mi-24, and – either a Russian or Armenian – Su-25 were shot down over the frontlines. The hastily organized Armenian counteroffensive turned into a failure, and then almost into a rout, as repeated Azeri attacks hit Armenian flanks and destroyed several unit. As the ground troops fell back, the ArAF was called for help, and Armenian pilots gave their best, paying a heavy price for their intensive operations. In the period between 10 and 15 January 1993, the Azeris claimed no less but ten Armenian helicopters and combat aircraft as shot down. Confirmed were, however, only the shot downs of two helicopters – one over Venjily, on 12 January, and another over Akstafa, two days later – and a MiG-21, on 15 January. By the end of the month, the ArAF lost another Mi-8, but the Azeri offensive was finally stopped. In the same period of time, the AzAF suffered additional losses of two L-29s, one MiG-21, and another not identified fighter, all of which were shot down in the Nagorniy Kharabakh area.

Concerned by the intensification of fighting, the Turkey, USA, and Russia organized a new of negotiations, starting from 28 January 1993. This time, an agreement was swift to be reached, as both sides were exhausted from heavy fighting under harsh winter conditions. According to the new cease-fire agreement, all “foreign” (i.e. Russian) troops were to leave both countries within 120 days, and all blockades of Nagorniy Kharabakh and Nachichevan were to be removed. In the next two months, also the OSCE (the Organization of Security and Cooperation in the Europe, based in Vienna), successfully initiated further negotiations, which finally fastened a kind of a peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which were now in terrible troubles due to a very cold winter, destroyed communications, and the lack of supplies.

Armenians took over a number of former Soviet Air Force Su-25s, most of which were previously based at Sital Tchay AB. While not much is known about their original camouflage, recently they were painted in same colours like Mi-24 - a combination of two Greens and Brown over, and Light Blue under. "Bort" number is red, outlined in White. Sadly, the unit operating these aircraft remains unknown. National marking should be worn in six positions, even if some of Armenian "Frogfoots" were seen without any on the upper side of starboard wing. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Final Round

By the spring of 1993, both the ArAF and the AzAF tried to recover from almost a total exhaustion, and only few aerial movements were reported. Yet, on 25 March 1993, the Armenians initiated the Operation “Kel’badjar”, in which their ground forces surrounded the Azerbaijan Army 2nd Corps in the Kel’badjar area, routing it in the process: the Azeris fled across the Kharabakh Ridge towards Gandzha, leaving behind 15 intact T-72s. On 16 April, the Azeris claimed an Armenian Mi-8 as shot down over Shaumiyan, in Nagorniy Kharabakh: the helicopter was hit while evacuating injured, and all 12 passengers and crew were killed.

Two new peace conferences were held in Rome, in summer and autumn 1993, but both brought only limited results. Consequently, the fighting on the front would erupt time and again. On 4 June 1993, Commander of the 709th Azeri Brigade, Col. Suret Gooseiynov, instigated a mutiny against Abulfaz Elchibey, the President of Azerbaijan, reasoning that Elchibey was unable to lead the country successfully. The Armenians used the opportunity to launch a new offensive against Agdam, an Azeri city northeast of Stepankert, sending a brigade equipped with 18 tanks, MLRS, and infantry, and supported by their Mi-24s. After only two days of fighting, Agdam was encircled and put under a siege. The AzAF immediately responded by flying close air support missions, but its operations were neither as fierce nor as effective as one year before. On the contrary, on 5 July 1993, for example, an AzAF L-29 was shot down over Mardakert, and soon after, it became impossible for AzAF helicopters to fly reinforcements and supplies into the city.

After besieging Agdam for almost a month, on 22 July the Armenians started their final attack. Once again, AzAF fighter-bombers tried to stop the offensive, but in the following days no less but seven of their aircraft and helicopters were claimed as shot down by the Armenians. Of these, only one AzAF MiG-21 (shot down on 22 July between Agdam and Martini, the pilot ejected) and two AzAF Mi-24s (one shot down during an attack on Mardakert, and another near Stepankert) were confirmed as indeed destroyed. Agdam fell to Armenian forces in the night from 24 to 25 July 1993.

Wreckage of an Azeri MiG-25RB, shot down in the Mardakert area. The Azeris suffered considerable losses in aircraft to well armed Armenian air defenses while trying to interdict the flow of supplies for Nogorniy Kharabakh or to support their troops on the ground. Especially the SA-14 proved extremely dangerous. (via Mikhail Zhirokhov)

Defeat at Agdam had severe repercussions for Azerbaijan: President Elchibey and the Defense Minister resigned. For several months, the new government, lead by Mamedrafi Mamedov – and Afghan War veteran – prepared a large counteroffensive, foremost by working on the discipline and training of the military, and by the end of the year, there were hardly any additional reports about fighting, and it seems that the both sides finally started to settle at reached positions. In January 1994, the Azeris finally attacked the NKAOSDF positions along the Lachin Corridor, gaining some ground in the process and once again making the road traffic between Nagorniy Kharabakh and Armenia impossible by day. Of course, the Armenians counterattacked, but the AzAF now deployed a large number of L-29s – equipped with unguided rockets and light bombs. The fighting was fierce, and losses on both sides heavy, especially as the L-29s lacked any kind of armor and proved sensitive even to small-arms-fire. For example, on 27 January 1994, two L-29s attacked NKAOSDF forces near Sothin, and flew directly into heavy defensive fire of several ZU-23-2s and S-60s. One Delfin was immediately shot down and the pilot killed, while the second came away badly damaged.

In mid-February 1994, the air warfare entered a new phase, as the Armenians received a batch of 9K34 Strela-3/SA-14 MANPADs. These excellent weapons proved resistant to the flares so far deployed with success by AzAF Mi-24s, and soon enough more kills against Azeri helicopters and aircraft were claimed. The first victim of Armenian SA-14s was an AzAF MiG-21, shot down on 17 February over Vardenisskiy (certain Russian sources claim however, that this MiG-21 was destroyed in an air combat with Armenian or Russian fighters), while underway as escort for one of AzAF Su-24MRs which was on a reconnaissance mission. On the same day, also an L-29 was shot down and the pilot captured. Only two days later, the Armenians shot down another AzAF L-29 over Nagorniy-Kharabakh, and also published their first claim for destruction of an Azeri Su-22 – which remains unconfirmed.

The last large attack of the AzAF against the targets in the area were reported on 23 April 1994, against Stepankert. No details about the target or the results of this strike are known, but the Armenians claimed the downing of one L-29, and two more as damaged. In the following days, the efforts by the OSCE were finally successful, and on 12 May a truce was signed, which largely holds until today, even if some sporadic skirmishes were reported time and again ever since. For example, in September 1995, a heavily armed Azeri unit drove over the Armenian border and captured the village of Vagan. After holding it for several hours, the Azeris were finally thrown back over the border, leaving behind two destroyed T-72s.

The two young air forces forged during this bloody war were subsequently largely demobilized, and started suffering considerably from the lack of funds. Serious estimates about their strength vary, but – after purchasing additional helicopters from Russia – the ArAF should have had some 13 Mi-24s left in December 1995. The AzAF, on the other side, was down to only 53 fighter jets (including approximately ten MiG-21s and ten MiG-25s), and six Mi-24s.

The tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia decreased only since the Azeris concentrated on developing their oil industry, based on huge reserves of crude and gas found under the Caspian Sea.

Map showing the main directions of the Armenian offensive on 27 March 1993; the Lachin corridor is marked by two parallel red lines; the main attacks went from two ends of the corridor towards Goradiz, pointing at an effort to widen the corridor, and eventually reach the second land communication in the area, the road from Goradiz to the south. The third prong of the offensive, an attack over Kel'badjar, was undertaken further to the north from this area. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003)

Order of Battle, Camouflage, Colours, Serials and Markings of Armenian and Azerbaijani Air Force

In general, very little is known about camouflage and markings of Armenian and Azerbaijani Air Forces, except that at the time of the war most of the aircraft and helicopters were still pained in camouflage patterns and wore markings of the former Soviet Air Force. Very little is known about their orders of battle too, and the available details are not completely confirmed.

Republic of Armenia Air Wing
- 15 SAP, based at Yerevan/Erebuni, equipped with six Mi-24Ks, seven Mi-24Ps (including "42" outlinned in white) and two Mi-24Rs, seven Mi-17s and Mi-8MTKs, and two Mi-2s

- 121 ShAE, based at Gyumri/Kumagari, equipped with five Su-25s (including "75", applied in red and outlinned in white) and two L-39s

- 60 UAE, based at Areni, equipped with six An-2s and ten Yak-52s

- VIP Transport Unit, equipped with a single Tu-154B-2, one tu-134A and two An-72s

Azerbaijani Hava Kuvveti/Azerbaijan Air Force
- ?? IBAP/Fighter Regiment, based at Kyurdamir, equipped with 12 L-39s, 18 L-29s, four MiG-21s, four Su-17Ms, three Su-24s, and two Su-25s

- ?? TP/Transport Regiment, based at Gyandzha, equipped with one An-12, one An-24, three Il-76s, and one Tu-134

- ?? HP/Helicopter Regiment, based at Gala, equipped with 13 Mi-8s, 15 Mi-24s, and seven Mi-2s


Some parts of this article were completed with help of Mr. Mikhail Zhirokhov, others with help from Mr. Ole Niklajsen. Except own research, other sources used were different OECD reports, and an article about this conflict published in the volume 3/1993 of the Österreichische Militär Zeitschrift ("Austrian Military Magazine").

© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

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