HEAVY fighting involving tanks and artillery claimed dozens of lives over the weekend in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Azerbaijan appeared poised for an all-out war against Armenia over control of the disputed territory.
Some of the worst fighting of the four-year conflict has raged over the last 10 days. But it was the crash of an Azeri helicopter last Tuesday, in which at least 40 people were killed, that put Azerbaijan on a war footing. Azerbaijan claims the helicopter was shot down by Armenian militants. Armenia says the craft crashed after ammunition on board accidentally exploded.
At a rally Saturday in Baku, the Azeri capital, more than 10,000 demonstrators called on their government to take tough action against Armenian militants operating in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeri government has vowed to retaliate.
"We cannot guarantee the security and safety of our people on their own land," said Zaur Rustam-Zade, Azerbaijan's representative in Moscow, referring to Nagorno-Karabakh. "The whole population should rise and defend itself."
Armenian officials say Azeri armed forces launched an offensive Friday, causing widespread destruction to many villages in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is located in Azerbaijan but is inhabited mostly by Armenians. The death toll from the past few days could be as high as 100, according to some estimates.
Azeri Foreign Minister Hussein Sadikhov, in Prague for a meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), said the Azeri militia action was designed to rid the region of Armenian "terrorists." The CSCE, which concluded its summit last week, decided to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Nagorno-Karabakh. It is expected to issue a report within three weeks.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have battled over Nagorno-Karabakh since 1988, killing more than 1,000 people on both sides. Azerbaijan, which enjoyed the support of the former Soviet Army, is considered to have a significant military advantage over Armenia.
In recent weeks peace became increasingly fragile in the territory, as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw the withdrawal of most security forces deployed by Moscow. Armenian officials want those troops, now under the command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, to remain, saying they would help stabilize the situation. In addition, Armenia has called for foreign peacekeepers, possibly from the CSCE, to take up positions in Nagorno-Karabakh.