Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced their release as he campaigned for snap parliamentary elections slated for June 20.
Pashinyan’s press secretary, Mane Gevorgyan, said that the POWs were repatriated to Armenia via Georgia.
“The process took place with U.S. and Georgian mediation, for which the government of Armenia thanks the U.S. administration and the Georgian government,” Gevorgyan wrote on Facebook.
Azerbaijan said it freed the POWs in exchange for an Armenian military map detailing the location of nearly 100,000 land mines in the Aghdam district east of Nagorno-Karabakh which was handed back to Baku under the terms of a Russian-brokered agreement that stopped last year’s Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
“The 15 Armenian captives were turned over on the Azerbaijani-Georgian border with the participation of Georgian representatives,” the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed their release. “We also welcome Armenia’s decision to provide Azerbaijan with important information that will facilitate humanitarian demining and avoid future casualties,” he said in a statement.
“The United States is pleased to support these steps and hopes they will lay the groundwork for additional cooperation. We continue to call for the return of all detainees and stand ready to assist the countries of the region in their efforts to continue cooperation and resolve outstanding issues between them,” added Blinken.
The Georgian government reported, meanwhile, that Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili personally helped to arrange the deal by negotiating with Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin last November calls for the unconditional release of all prisoners held by the conflicting sides.
Russian peacekeepers deployed in Karabakh after the six-week war have arranged several prisoner swaps in recent months. No Azerbaijani prisoners are known to be held in Armenia or Karabakh at present.
A total of 88 Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians have been freed to date. More than 100 others are believed to remain in Azerbaijani captivity. Yerevan regularly demands their immediate release.
Baku says that they are not covered by the truce agreement because they were captured after it took effect on November 10. Azerbaijani officials have branded the remaining Armenian detainees as “terrorists.”
At least 16 of them are facing what the Armenian Foreign Ministry condemned last week as “trumped-up criminal charges.”
“It is evident that Azerbaijan is using the captured people as political hostages and tools to pursue other goals,” the ministry said in a June 4 statement. It accused Baku of concealing “the real number of prisoners” and “denying the captivity of dozens of Armenian servicemen and civilians.”