Armenians and Azerbaijanis Clash in Two Soviet Villages

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE nationalist-led Soviet republic of Armenia is facing new pressures from Soviet security agencies following bloody frontier clashes with neighboring Azerbaijan. The conflict, involving two Armenian-populated villages within Azerbaijan, threatens to expand into a wider battle, possibly between Armenian militia and Soviet Army and Interior Ministry troops. During the weekend, the Soviet Defense and Interior ministries openly sided with Azerbaijan, placing blame for the conflict on the Armenian government and militia units.

"Armenian militants' attacks on federal Interior Ministry troops are acquiring a systematic and increasingly daring nature," Lt. Gen. Boris Smyslov, deputy commander of Interior Ministry troops, told the official Tass news agency. According to reports, about 200 Soviet Army troops were flown into Yerevan, the Armenian capital, this weekend, after protesters marched in the hundreds of thousands. On Sunday, the Armenian interior minister and the Soviet Army commander agreed to take steps to protect Soviet Army facilities in Armenia.

Anti-Army sentiments have risen since Soviet Army units, for the first time, joined Azerbaijani units against Armenian militants. The conflict escalated almost two weeks ago, when Azerbaijani special Interior Ministry troops attempted to move into the two villages, ostensibly to check passports. Army units, backed by tanks, supported Azeri troops when they came under fire.

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Armenian officials charge that the Soviet authorities are favoring Azerbaijan because of its decision to remain within the Soviet Union. Armenia is one of six republics that intends to secede.

The conflict has intensified, despite the intervention of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who met separately on Friday with Armenian leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Azerbaijani leader Ayaz Mutalibov. The villages are surrounded by Azeri troops, says Felix Mamikonyan, the head of the Armenian government mission in Moscow. Some women, children, and wounded have been evacuated by helicopter, a situation the Armenian official characterizes as "a creeping deportation."

The villages, Getashen (pop., 2,000) and Martunashen (pop., 260), are near the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armed Armenian militants are in the villages to protect them from frequent Azeri attacks, Armenian officials say.

THE fighting, which Armenians say claimed 36 lives, is the outgrowth of the desire of that region to become part of Armenia. The battle over Nagorno-Karbakh, which is under virtual martial law, has claimed hundreds of lives in more than two years; the majority of the Azeri minority in Armenia and the Armenians living in Azerbaijan have fled as refugees.

Armenian officials say the latest incident arises out of an effort by the Azerbaijani government to deport the Armenians inhabiting villages on their territory. A similar deportation took place in the villages of Azat and Kamo, a senior Armenian Interior Ministry official told the Monitor in an interview earlier in Yerevan. Repeated attempts to bring this situation to the attention of authorities in Moscow were ignored, he said.

The difference this time, the official argues, is that Gen. Yuri Shatalin, the local Soviet Interior Minister Commander, is acting in clear support of the Azerbaijan government to heat up the conflict. Partly it is an attempt to block Armenian independence, he says, but the immediate cause is to strengthen the hands of the Azerbaijan Communist leadership, which is fighting an intense internal battle with more militant nationalist elements.

'The Communist regime in Azerbaijan is in a political crisis, because their authority is based on the bayonets of the Soviet Army and they have no support from the people," the senior Armenian official says. The Mutalibov leadership is challenged by a group led by Prime Minister Hasan Hasanov, which includes radicals from the Azerbaijan Popular Front who favor independence from Moscow. The recent conflict is an effort to give Mr. Mutalibov some nationalist credentials in that battle, he says.

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