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Azeris May Appeal to Neighbors

Armenian-Azeri clashes along the border of Nakichevan raise prospects of internationalizing the conflict, drawing in Turkey, Iran, and the Commonwealth of Independent States

By Justin BurkeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 1992


THE phone rings and Geidar Aliyev, the parliamentary leader of this Azeri enclave, raises his hand to hush reporters. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan is on the other end of the line, and the two leaders must discuss ways to end clashes between Azeri and Armenian forces near the village of Sadarak in northern Nakichevan, he explains.

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Mr. Aliyev, a Brezhnev-era member of the Communist Party Politburo who now claims he is a democrat, listens intently and then shouts, "Your statement sounds fine, but I ask you to give the order to cease fire."

Aliyev was shouting not out of anger but because the phone line was bad. Shortly thereafter, he told Mr. Ter-Petrosyan that he would have to try to call him back on a clearer line. The conversation summarized the nature of the Armenian-Azeri conflict. Both sides are having trouble understanding each other, and they also appear to be having communications problems within their own camps.

Over the last four years thousands of Armenians and Azeris have been killed in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan. In recent weeks Armenian forces have gained control of Karabakh and opened an overland supply route through a strip of Azeri territory that separates Karabakh from Armenian proper.

Now tensions have spread to the border with Nakichevan, an Azeri-ruled enclave surrounded on three sides by Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Fighting has raged for four days along the Nakichevan-Armenian border, killing at least 20 Azeri fighters, officials in Nakichevan say.

The fighting has raised the threat of internationalizing the conflict as both neighboring Iran and Turkey have hinted they might intervene in support of their Muslim Azeri brothers. Russian news services have carried unconfirmed reports that Turkish troops have been put on alert.

Aliyev said his priority was securing a cease-fire. But he added that if the fighting continued he would have to seek assistance from Turkey, which under a 1921 treaty signed with Soviet Russia is a guarantor of Nakichevan's security. "If Turkey gets involved, anything is possible. I am warning the world community that a real explosion could take place."

Russia, which also has a treaty status as a guarantor of security for the area, has expressed its own interest in the events. Yesterday Russian President Boris Yeltsin's top aide, Gennady Burbulis, accompanied by newly named Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev, flew to Yerevan for talks with the Armenian leadership.

Troops of the former Soviet Army, now part of the forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States, remain along the border with Turkey and Iran. Col. Viktor Zhukov, local commander of the troops, warned that his forces would resist any Turkish attempt to cross the border.

Aliyev reestablished telephone contacts with the Armenian leader later Wednesday. During the renewed conversation he expressed approval of the Armenian leader's suggestion to establish a neutral security zone. But he said a cease-fire had to be in place before a protocol could be signed. According to Aliyev, Ter-Petrosyan gave assurances that an order would be given.