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Azerbaijan Releases Iranian Truck Drivers At Center Of Diplomatic Dispute.

Azerbaijan has released two Iranian truck drivers whose arrest last month on charges of illegally entering the country strained ties between the two neighbors.

The release of the Iranian citizens on October 21 comes a week after Azerbaijan and Iran's foreign ministers agreed to dial back heated rhetoric and engage in dialogue to defuse diplomatic crises.

Azerbaijan's customs department said it had handed over the drivers to the Iranian Embassy in Baku in a decision "guided by principles of humanitarianism, mutual respect, and good neighborliness."

The truck drivers were arrested on September 12 as Iran threatened unspecified action over what it alleged was the presence of archenemy Israel in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani regime, which buys weapons from Israel, denied the allegations.

Relations also deteriorated following joint military drills that Azerbaijani troops conducted alongside Turkish and Pakistani forces, prompting Iran to stage rare military drills along its 700-kilometer border with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Iran have long been at loggerheads over Tehran's backing of Armenia, an issue that gained greater importance during last year's war between Baku and Armenian forces over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The six-week war ended in November 2020 following a Russian-brokered cease-fire, which saw Azerbaijan regain control over a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts.

Some of the territory recaptured by Azerbaijan is along the border with Iran, including a road Iranian trucks had previously used to ship goods to Armenia.

Baku said the drivers entered Azerbaijan through that territory, bypassing border controls to avoid customs duties on cargo transiting to Armenia.

Iran stressed that it respected the territorial integrity of its neighbors but demanded the immediate release of the drivers.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transport this week ordered transport companies to avoid using the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin region, an area recaptured by Azerbaijan and monitored by Russian peacekeepers.

According to the directive, which reportedly came due to protests from Azerbaijan, Iranian transport companies were told that entry into Azerbaijan using any route but official border crossings was a violation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

The order also prohibits any trade agreement with Armenian forces in Karabakh and the issuance of shipping documents to the region still partially controlled by Armenian separatists.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service and Radio Farda

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