Caucasus Dispute Rages Despite Peace Efforts

Azeri-Armenian conflict threatens cohesion of commonwealth

TALKS held last week between Armenian and Azer-baijani officials here have apparently failed to halt the escalation of war in the Caucasus region.

Despite the joint call for a cease-fire and lifting of the blockade to allow humanitarian aid into the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, fighting continued uninterrupted. Since the talks Thursday, heavy volleys of missiles have struck the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert.

The combat now threatens to extend beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave that has claimed independence from Azerbaijan, into a full-scale war between neighboring Christian Armenia and the Islamic Turkic republic of Azerbaijan. The war could tear apart the fragile Commonwealth of Independent States which has replaced the former Soviet Union.

On Saturday, the government of Azerbaijan charged that Armenian troops, backed by forces of the former Soviet Army based in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, had launched an attack on their territory. The government claimed mechanized units, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, had moved into border districts.

According to the independent Interfax news agency, an Azeri spokesman asserted the attacks were the result of talks held last week in Moscow between Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and the commonwealth's commander-in-chief Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov.

The Armenian defense ministry and the commonwealth Armed Forces command vigorously denied those accusations.

"The only purpose of this misinformation is to distract the attention of the public from the policy of open extermination of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh pursued by Azerbaijan," the Armenian Defense Ministry said, according to the official Russian news agency, Tass. They charge that Azeri units have seized modern weapons, including artillery rocket launchers and helicopter gunships, from the former Soviet Army.

The parliament and government of Karabakh issued an appeal on Saturday to the United Nations for the world body to intervene immediately to halt the conflict. The Armenian government has also called for deployment of either UN or commonwealth peacekeeping forces, proposals rejected by Azerbaijan.

President Yeltsin's adviser, Galina Staravoitova, backed the call for a UN or commonwealth peacekeeping effort. She called the conflict a "litmus test" for the survival of the commonwealth, which includes both Azerbaijan and Armenia among its members.

Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian told the Monitor that Armenia favors keeping the former Soviet Army units in Karabakh. That was likely the main item on the agenda in the closed-door talks Thursday.

But the former Soviet Army is reluctant to play a further peacekeeping role. Clashes between troops of the former Soviet Army's 366th regiment, the last peacekeeping forces sent into the area four years ago, and Azeri forces have been reported. According to a Radio Moscow report, two soldiers were killed Saturday after they refused to hand over weapons and a vehicle to Azeri fighters.

Last week Marshal Shaposhnikov denied earlier Azeri charges that his troops were siding with the Armenians fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. But he told reporters that the unit based in Stepanakert would return fire if "just one shell falls on the territory of this regiment." Nonetheless, he supported moves to pull out those forces soon to prevent them from being drawn into a conflict that has already claimed more than 1,000 lives.

"The prospect of regular forces being drawn into military actions is a gloomy one," Shaposhnikov told the Army daily Red Star. "It means turning the conflict, which can and should be solved by political means, into a large-scale war."

Azerbaijan is moving ahead with plans to form its own army and refuses to recognize the Karabakh authorities themselves as a party to any talks, fearing this would be tantamount to recognition of Karabakh's claims to independence.

The talks held last Thursday are not likely to go further without resolution of this issue, according to Armenian Foreign Minister Hovannisian.

Some hopes for peace, or at least a cease-fire, and negotiations are now resting with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent a team to the region recently and will issue a report in Prague on Feb. 27-28. According to Reuters news agency, the team is expected to urge talks be held under its auspices, including representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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